A Presbyterian congregation in California that voted in October to leave Presbyterian Church USA (PCUSA) over its newly-adopted policy of allowing openly gay members to serve in the clergy has been torn over its decision, due in part to the memories of a gay church member who committed suicide three years ago, the Sacramento Bee reported.
Thomas Paniccia was an Air Force staff sergeant who made national headlines in 1992 when he revealed that he was homosexual on ABC's "Good Morning America" to protest against the Don't Ask, Don't Tell (DADT) military policy that prohibits gays and lesbians from serving openly.
Only 28-years-old at the time, Paniccia had already logged 11 years in the Air Force and was a highly decorated and highly respected member of the armed forces, having won several awards and commendations from superiors.
The Sunday after he came out, Paniccia went to a church and prayed, the Phoenix New Times reported in 1992.
However, despite his record, Paniccia was discharged after the televised revelation about his sexual orientation, due to the DADT policy.
Paniccia would eventually move to San Francisco, get involved in gay rights activism, and then decide to live a more private life, working in the computer industry and joining the Fremont Presbyterian Church to rededicate his life to Christ, according to David Larson, a friend of Paniccia who spoke to the Sacramento Bee.
While attending the church, Paniccia grew close to the Rev. Donald Baird, who opposes homosexuality and led the way to the church's break from PCUSA over its new policy regarding gay clergy.
"Tom came into church as someone looking for answers," Baird said. "He took it all in like a sponge...I told him as long as he was celibate, I didn't care. We all have our struggles."
Baird believes that homosexual urges should be dealt with prayer and that no one, heterosexual or homosexual should have sex outside of marriage.
Paniccia would often come by to talk to Baird about Scripture and celibacy, and Baird believes that his friend had accepted celibacy as the best way to live.
On July 23, 2007, on the 15-year anniversary of his coming out on live TV, Paniccia swallowed an overdose of prescription pills and died.
Larson, who rented a room in his house to Paniccia, believes that the former Air Force staff sergeant simply could not live with both his religion and his sexuality.
"As a close personal friend, I unfortunately realized Tom's inability to accept being gay combined with his religious views is what I believe led to his suicide," he said.
Baird, however, blames the media for driving Paniccia to suicide, claiming that networks had contacted him regarding his coming out on national TV 15 years prior, which is why he chose to die on the anniversary of his open protest against DADT.
"He didn't want to relive that again," Baird said. "He had moved on, and they were determined to bring all that up."
The disagreement over the motive behind Paniccia's suicide among two close friends indicates the reason will never be known. But is it possible that beliefs held by particular faiths can lead a person to commit suicide?
The Sacramento Bee cited a 2010 Public Religion Research Institute survey that found two out of three Americans said they believe gay people who commit suicide do so at least partly because of messages coming out of churches and other places of worship.
Dan Savage, the radio personality and gay rights activist who started the "It Gets Better Project," a campaign designed to help gay youth who face harassment, said the survey's results reflected his experiences and purportedly "that of millions of other gay and lesbian people," CNN reported.
There is no hard data that shows how many suicides are a result of religious teachings on sexual morality. However, Brent Childers, executive director at Faith in America, a national gay-affirming nonprofit that educates the public about what it perceives to be religion-based intolerance, told the Sacramento Bee that he believes religion has an effect.
"We don't need a research study to understand the role religious teaching plays in these cases," Childers said. "How can it not have a debilitating effect when there's a religious and moral stamp of disapproval on someone's very being?"
However, Baird disagrees that Christian teachings that condemn homosexuality can push gay people to suicide.
"The Gospel is a message of love," Baird said. "I'm not homophobic. I know people have this view that evangelicals hate gays, and that's not true. We don't. We hate sin, and we are all sinners."