Jerry Falwell, gay-rights activist?

It isn't shocking when leaders of the Human Rights Campaign praise people who have taken stands to back the civil rights of gays, lesbians and bisexuals.

But it certainly raised eyebrows when the gay-rights group publicly thanked the Rev. Jerry Falwell. The result was an odd little news story that, at first glance, made about as much sense as the Southern Baptist Convention throwing a party for its friends at the Walt Disney Co.

The story began with Falwell defending volunteer legal work that Supreme Court nominee John Roberts did during a key court battle over homosexual rights.

"I may not agree with the lifestyle. But that has nothing to do with the civil rights of that part of our constituency," said Falwell, on MSNBC's "The Situation with Tucker Carlson."

"Judge Roberts would probably have been not a good very good lawyer if he had not been willing, when asked by his partners in the law firm, to assist in guaranteeing the civil rights of employment and housing to any and all Americans."

Falwell plunged on, denying that he had changed his stance on extending "special rights" to homosexuals as a minority group. Equal access to housing and employment are basic rights, he said.

"Civil rights for all Americans, black, white, red, yellow, the rich, poor, young, old, gay, straight, etc., is not a liberal or conservative value," said Falwell. "It's an American value that I would think that we pretty much all agree on."

It was half a loaf, but gay-rights leaders grabbed it.

The Rev. Mel White of Soulforce -- a group based near Falwell's evangelical empire in Lynchburg, Va. -- immediately set out to verify if his former employer had meant to say what he had said. Before coming out as a gay activist in the early 1990s, White was a seminary professor and superstar ghostwriter who worked with the Rev. Billy Graham, Pat Robertson, Oliver North, Jim Bakker and, yes, Falwell.

How well does White know Falwell? Twenty years ago, he wrote his autobiography. The men have matched wits and sound bites ever since.

After reading Falwell's remarks, White immediately touched base with Ron Godwin, the former executive director of the Moral Majority.

"I asked him three questions," said White, during a trip last week to Washington, D.C. "I asked, 'Did Jerry say it?' He said, 'Yes.' I asked, 'Did Jerry mean it?' He said, 'Yes.' I asked, 'Will Jerry retract it?' He said, 'No.'

"I said, 'Thank Jerry for that.' "

Godwin confirmed that he talked to White on a recent Sunday morning, which isn't strange since White and his partner Gary Nixon frequently attend Thomas Road Baptist Church to monitor what Falwell says about sexuality and politics in the pulpit. They have been known to stand up in silent protest when the preacher says something that they believe is wrong.

Members of Falwell's team, said Godwin, cannot understand why White and others think the religious broadcaster has changed his tune on crucial issues linked to sexuality, marriage and civil rights. In this case, Falwell was merely restating his belief that homosexuals should not be denied civil rights they have as individual American citizens.

"We're not talking about the unique and special rights that are assigned to people in protected minority groups," said Godwin, who is now president of Jerry Falwell Ministries. "I understand that Mel has a strong desire to gain recognition for his cause. ... But Jerry Falwell is what he is and this 72-year-old Baptist was not trying to send some kind of subtle, oblique message that he has changed what he believes."

Obviously, White disagrees. He believes that, whether he wants to admit it or not, Falwell has changed some of the language that he uses to describe homosexuals and, in disputes that are theological as much as political, those words matter.

"I have known Jerry a long time and I think this was a serious change in his life," said White. "Never before has he said that he recognized us as a class -- as a protected class -- like other Americans. Now he has included us as gay and straight, right in there with black and white, man and woman, rich and poor, young and old and everybody else. That's important."