By Rich Phillips -
Jacksonville, Florida (CNN) – Latisha Bines and Misty Gray cheered like any other parents at a recent middle school soccer game.
They're the two soccer moms in 13-year-old Darion Bines’ life. The women and all three of Latisha’s children operate as a family. And they've turned to their church for support, suggesting a changing face of the Bible Belt.
Data from the most recent U.S. Census shows that the South has the largest share of gay parents in the country.
“There are more of us coming out,” Bines said. “We’re feeling more comfortable about who we are. I guess it gives us more of a chance than back in the '80s, when you had to stay in the closet because you were ridiculed.”
Bines came out after having three children. She and Misty were joined as life partners in 2010 commitment ceremony. They live in part of the conservative Deep South, where many communities have not been receptive to so-called gay families.
“Gay and lesbian people tend to come out later in life, in those areas, which means they are more likely to have children from a previous relationship earlier in their lives,” said Gary Gates, a demographer with the Williams Institute at the University of California, Los Angeles, School of Law.
Gates analyzed the data from the American Community Survey from 2005-09, which is administered by the Census Bureau. His analysis also showed that across the country, gay parents are more likely to be black or Hispanic than they are to be white.
According to the survey, San Antonio, Texas, leads the country in gay parenting, with 34% of same-sex couples raising children. That's followed by Jacksonville, Florida at 32%.
Read more about gay adoption in Florida.
Bines and Gray have lived in Jacksonville all their lives.
They say they’ve found that their sexual orientation and spirituality can come together and be welcomed in gay-friendly Jacksonville area churches that were once off limits.
“It was welcome. It was comfortable,” Bines said. “We’re lesbian, but our God still loves us, no matter what.”
Bines sings in the choir at the nondenominational St. Luke’s Community Church, which was firebombed three times in the 1980s, apparently because of its policy of welcoming lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender congregants.
The church's pastor, Valerie Williams, is a gay activist. She says church policy all about family acceptance, especially for children.
The goal is “acceptance of their parents and being able to be around other children who have the same makeup of families that they have,” she said. "God is love and that’s the God that we serve here.”
Some local congregations challenge Williams' approach. When word of Jacksonville’s gay parent ranking in the census began to spread, one pastor asked for everyone to pray.
Pastor Vaughn McLaughlin, of the Potter’s House Christian Fellowship, told CNN that the Bible does not teach or encourage gay relationships, which he says confuse children.
“A lifestyle of open, same-sex relationships, that can’t regenerate, that can’t produce, that can’t do anything," said McLaughlin, who leads a megachurch. "I find it to be over and against what I actually have found the truth of the Bible to be.”
“Marriage is between a man and a woman," he continued. "That’s the biblical premise for what we believe, for what we teach, and we’re gonna hold on to that.”
But at St. Luke’s, Williams defended the rights of gay people and their families to worship.
“The children are able to serve God , with their families, and not being judged by the person sitting in the pew in front of them… snickering, like, ‘Why do they have kids? Why are they here?’”
Williams has started a support group for the children of gay parents. There, kids can talk about problems they're dealing with, including discrimination, over a hot dog or spaghetti dinner and review their report cards with Williams, who is known by congregants as Pastor Val.
And for Bines and Gray, the church has been a welcome addition to their lives.
“It’s brought us together, structurally as a family,” Gray said. “And because of the recent death rates, the suicide rates for kids being bullied, it’s extremely strong for the church to be a factor in the kids lives.”
Gates, the demographer, and Williams said they believe a cultural or religious support system might allow people to be more honest about their sexual orientation on a government survey.
“People are more willing to indicate on these government surveys that they are part of a same-sex couple, even in the more conservative parts of the country,” said Gates. “It’s a sign of progress.”