Anti-gay shop owner in west Michigan defies backlash

Francis X. Donnelly
The Detroit News

Grandville — When a west Michigan auto shop owner announced last month he wouldn't serve gays, the response was quick and visceral.

Brian Klawiter received death threats. His shop, Dieseltec, was vandalized. A liberal Michigan group launched a boycott.

Demonstrators marched outside the business. His work phone rings all day with angry callers from around the country.

The backlash hasn't deterred the shop owner. If anything, it seems to have emboldened him.

Klawiter, 35, is looking for ways to amplify his voice beyond his original announcement on Facebook that his Christian faith precludes him from serving gays.

As the Supreme Court considers whether Michigan and other states may ban same-sex marriage, Klawiter wants to talk to churches and other groups to spread his message.

He spoke to a tea party group in Caledonia on Thursday.

He believes the growing rights of gays are threatening religious freedom and that it's part of a larger, liberal doctrine that is destroying America.

"Homosexuality is wrong, period," he said last week. "As a Bible believer, I think it is sinful and poisonous to your soul."

Klawiter's foes say he isn't delivering a message of faith but one of hate.

Two days after the Facebook post, Lesly DeLaat mounted a solo protest by standing in front of Dieseltec with a sign against the ban.

DeLaat, 32, a self-employed landscaper from Newaygo, said she has many Christian friends who accept that she's gay.

"He's a bad representative of a Christian," she said about Klawiter. "I don't have the same faith and Bible he does."

On Dieseltec's Facebook page, Klawiter has referred to gays as sodomites, reprobates, deviants, immoral and homofascists.

But his social media musings, which include his belief that people aren't born gay, have drawn supporters. The Facebook post has 4,723 likes.

One of them is Dennis Stotts Jr., 47, a truck driver from Akron, Ohio.

"Let's put it back in the closet where it belongs," he said about homosexuality. "Don't let these perverts tell you otherwise."

He considered printing T-shirts that supported the auto shop with an off-color joke about gays, but thought better of it.

As for Klawiter, he is a born-again Christian who had a troubled childhood.

Raised in a foster home, he dropped out of high school, was homeless for a while and was convicted of a misdemeanor assault, he said.

After finding God in his late teens, he married, had two kids, got a GED and built a successful diesel-engine repair shop that employs five "Americans," he said.

He got the idea to ban gays after reading about an Indiana pizzeria that, because of its owners' religious beliefs, wouldn't cater same-sex weddings. After receiving threats, Memories Pizza in Walkerton closed for eight days.

"Rather than stand behind them in support, I wanted to stand beside them," he said about the pizzeria.

On April 14, Klawiter posted a message on the Facebook page of Dieseltec.

"Enough is enough," he began. "Our rights as conservative Americans are being squashed more and more every day."

Comparing homosexuality to dishonesty, thievery and immorality, he said he wouldn't hesitate to refuse service to anyone who is openly gay.

"Homosexuality is wrong, period," he wrote. "If you want to argue this fact with me then I will put your vehicle together with all bolts and no nuts and you can see how that works."

In the same message, he said guns are allowed in his shop and, in fact, qualify their owners for a discount.

It wasn't just gays who were offended.

A Grand Rapids bankruptcy attorney wrote an open letter to Klawiter, mockingly offering his services for what he said would be the imminent business collapse resulting from Klawiter's "inane, incoherent and just plain dumb comments."

The lawyer, Jeffrey Mapes, wrote that he, like Klawiter, is a white, straight male who owns a gun and believes in God.

Where they part ways, Mapes said in an interview, is on their interpretation of the Bible.

"As a Christian, I find that reprehensible on so many levels, that he's going to turn people away who might need your help," he said.

Fighting back

Two days after Klawiter posted the Facebook message, Patrick McElwee planned to douse the shop with eggs.

Before he could do so, a shop customer kicked a carton of eggs from his hands, splaying them over the paved lot, said Grandville police.

McElwee was detained by the customer, who held a leash to a German shepherd with one hand and put his other on a handgun holstered to his hip.

"I was going to walk up there, throw some eggs and then be like 'Ah, I feel better about myself,' " the would-be egg thrower told a local reporter.

McElwee, 24, who is bisexual, wrote an apology on his Facebook page.

Five days later, Klawiter came to work to find a rock had been thrown through the shop window. "Bash back," an apparent reference to gay bashing, was spray-painted on the garage door and the windshield of a red pickup parked outside.

Also sprayed were two other vehicles and the side of the building.

Police have boosted patrols in the mixed industrial-residential neighborhood that holds Dieseltec.

On April 18, 45 people demonstrated in front of the auto shop. Among their signs: "Jesus had 2 dads," "Gay is okay," and "God = Love."

Getting wind of the protest ahead of time, Klawiter hosted a barbecue at the same time.

"We can enjoy a sunny afternoon together with our guns, our God, our freedom," he wrote on his Facebook page.

The barbecue drew nearly as many people as the demonstration. The shop offered hamburgers to the protesters who declined.

Holli Johnson, one of the demonstrators, said it was ironic Klawiter was willing to provide food to gays but not auto service.

"He's a bad picture of what a Christian is supposed to be," said Johnson, 26, a lesbian from Montague. "The Bible says love thy neighbor, which is exactly not what he's doing."

A voice for silent majority

If Klawiter has his way, he's just getting started.

In the looming fight between gay rights and religious rights, he wants to be a warrior.

The Indiana pizzeria received $840,000 in donations from supporters. Someone started a similar fundraiser for Klawiter but he shut it down.

Instead of money, he's using the notoriety for something else.

He doesn't want to call it a ministry. It's more like a message he wants to spread across the country, he said.

He wants to give voice to what he believes is a silent majority of Americans uneasy with the growing clout of gays.

"Under the Christian sexual ethic, it is immoral, and harms the individuals engaging in it, and the society that tolerates it," he said about homosexuality.

Klawiter said a dozen churches want him to speak before their congregations, including one in California. He also will begin writing a weekly online column for the conservative Sons of Liberty Media.

Rarely writing on social media before April 14, Klawiter now writes something every few days.

The rhetoric hasn't softened.

On April 26, he wrote he doesn't care for a religion that turns the other cheek, which he equates with effeminacy.

He prefers the more macho, fire-and-brimstone God from the Old Testament who he says would have punished people for being gay.

"I want to educate people about what it means to be a man of God," he said. "We need strong men in the church."

Klawiter said it was only right to punish gays, who he compared to cheaters, thieves, backstabbers and other "assorted evildoers."

Despite their sins, he was quick to add, he loves gays.

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Twitter: @francisXdonnell