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A NKY mom signed up to ref her son's basketball games. She was told she couldn't because she's gay.

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Posted at 5:35 PM, Feb 08, 2023

BURLINGTON, Ky. — Northern Kentucky native Ayanna Mckinney lives and breathes basketball. When she got the opportunity to volunteer to referee at her son’s games, she jumped on it.

The first six weeks in the Upward Sports program through the Florence Baptist Temple went off without a hitch, according to the Purcell Marian High School graduate. But one day in January, Ayanna said two church officials unexpectedly showed up at her home, which she shares with her wife and six kids, and told her that she could no longer volunteer as a referee because of her sexual orientation.

"I was just in disbelief," Ayanna said. "I don't know how they were that comfortable to come to our house and just tell us that."

According to Ayanna, the two men told her that because her sexuality goes against the laws of the church, and being a referee was considered a leadership position, she was no longer able to participate. She said the men came to her home after she refereed her first game, and the conversation took place in front of their children, including their 10-year-old son Mason, who played on the team.

Ayanna’s wife Jesika said she felt humiliated.

"We obviously see judgment or discrimination often within our world, but it’s an unimaginable experience when you are facing it personally," Jesika said.

The two, who are not members of the church, said they paid for three of their children to be a part of the organization after their kids saw flyers advertised at Stephens Elementary School, a public school in the Boone County School District. Mason and one of his sisters played basketball. The couple said their other daughter was a cheerleader.

Mason and his sisters
Mason and his two sisters participated in the Upward Sports program through the Florence Baptist Temple. Mason Played basketball and his two sisters were cheerleaders.

They said they signed up in the fall and started participating in December. According to the women, church officials knew they were married from day one. They said they are confused why their sexuality suddenly became an issue.

"My biggest thing that I'm going for right now is to make sure that these flyers don't go home in the school system anymore in children's bags. I don't believe they should be advertising a program like this that is not going to get catered to our community and the diverse backgrounds that we all have," Jesika said.

Jesika doesn't want any other family to be blindsided like she said hers was.

"This time it was aimed at sexual orientation," Jesika said. "Could the next victims be a divorced couple, or could they choose to discriminate against the color of a person’s skin?"

The Boone County School District said they were "saddened to hear" about how the family was treated.

"Based on what has happened to this family, in the future, we will ensure all flyers will be vetted through the lens of inclusion before approving them to be distributed in our schools," a district spokesperson said.

Upward Sports is not solely affiliated with the Florence Baptist Temple. It’s a nationwide non-profit organization that partners with more than 5,000 churches. According to Upward’s website, its mission is to promote the discovery of Jesus through sports.

Michael Gilbert, Mason’s basketball coach, has been involved in Upward Sports for 20 years and said he’s never seen a family treated so poorly.

"Upward is a Christian-based program that doesn’t discriminate," Gilbert said. "To blindside them like that and come to their house is ridiculous."

Gilbert and his fiancé, Katie Wells, the team’s assistant coach, said they talked with church officials and were told that one of Ayanna's daughter's cheerleading coaches within the Upward program raised concerns about the girl's parents. That prompted church leaders to have a meeting in which they decided to inform the women that they could no longer volunteer, the couple said.

"It's 2023, it's time to move on,” Gilbert said. "Lesbians are allowed to get married in the state, but they're not allowed to participate in their kids’ activities. How does that make sense?"

Gilbert and Wells said that church officials kept “rambling about Bible verses” when trying to justify their decision.

"It just blows my mind because, I mean, this church wants to live back like it's the 1950s," Gilbert said.

The coaches and the family both said the church did not provide them with a written copy of the laws of the church.

The church refused WCPO’s request for comment. The church’s website links to what is called the "Baptist Bible Fellowship International Articles of Faith." In these articles of faith, it states the following:

“Since God created mankind into genders distinctly male and female, we believe that the only legitimate marriage is that between a man and a woman. He has commanded that no intimate sexual activity be engaged in outside of marriage. We believe that any form of homosexuality, lesbianism, bisexuality, bestiality, incest, fornication, adultery and pornography are sinful perversions of God’s gift of sex. We believe that God rejects any attempt to alter one’s gender by surgery or appearance.”

The Baptist Bible Fellowship International did not respond to WCPO’s request for comment regarding how churches affiliated with the fellowship are supposed to interpret and act on the articles of faith.

Upward Sports also did not respond to WCPO’s request for comment.

The women have since pulled their kids from the program.

"We pulled our kids out because we were not welcome as a family," Ayanna said. "How could we continue to participate in an organization that has expressed my marriage and love I share with my wife is not accepted?"

They received a full refund from the church. When they received the check, it had a sticky note with a message they said was from a church official that read in part, "We ask that you please stop telling people that we told you/your kids that you were not welcome. It was not our decision to end things this way … we regret you felt it was."

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The couple said the church refunded them the money they paid to get their kids into the Upward Sports program.

Gilbert and Wells said they were appalled to learn that the church was trying to blame the family for what happened.

"Why would they want to continue?" Wells said. "You’re putting them in a very bad situation, and you’re wanting them to continue a program that is not supporting their family."

Gilbert said what the church did is unfair to the family, along with the rest of the team.

"(The other children on the team) asked where (Mason) was at. And I felt bad for lying. I told them Mason wouldn't be playing. And they asked 'why?' And I said, 'family reasons,'" Gilbert said. "I'm not telling a bunch of 9- and 10-year-olds, oh, Mason is not playing no more because his moms are gay."

Gilbert said he wanted to quit the program when he learned what happened to Mason and his family, but he wants to stay for the rest of the team.

"I could care less if I ever step back in that church. But there's eight kids that are depending on me," Gilbert said. "I'm going to finish out the season with these kids because it's not fair to quit on them just because the church quit on that family."

According to the coaches, all the parents of the other children on the team are very upset.

"They’ve spoken to me, they want to know what they can do," Wells said.

Gilbert said that, like Mason’s family, most people in the sports program are not members of the church.

The coaches told WCPO they're speaking out because they are not going to let the church "push this under the rug."

"I'll be darned if it happens to another family," Gilbert said. "They're just not Christian type people, for them to do what they did to a family like that."

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Ayanna and Jesika with their six children.

The coaches said they are holding a get-together next month with the team that has nothing to do with Upward or the church so that Mason can see his friends again.

"We’re bringing in Mason, so Mason could see everybody and, you know, so Mason knows that people still love him and care about him. And you know that he's not forgotten," Gilbert said.

Jesika said that while her family is shaken by this experience, they are not broken.

"I love my wife beyond words," Jesika said. "I never believed that because of my sexual orientation that you have to accept me, and you have to love me. But you do have to respect me."

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