Tennis great Margaret Court told Reuters today she was sad her religious views were being used as fuel for a planned protest at next week's Australian Open, but said she remained staunchly opposed to same-sex marriage.
Activists are calling for people attending the year's first grand slam event, starting Jan. 16, to unfurl "rainbow flags" at the Margaret Court Arena, the third show-court at Melbourne Park named after the Australian.
Court, a 24-times grand slam singles champion and a pastor at the Victory Life Centre church in Perth, has long opposed same-sex marriage but sparked a fierce backlash from retired women's champions Martina Navratilova and Billie Jean King, both homosexuals, when she reiterated her views in a Western Australian newspaper recently.
Court was quoted describing advocacy of same-sex marriage as promoting "unhealthy" and "unnatural" unions.
"To dismantle this sole definition of marriage and try to legitimise what God calls abominable sexual practices that include sodomy, reveals our ignorance as to the ills that come when society is forced to accept law that violates their very own God-given nature of what is right and what is wrong," a local newspaper quoted her as saying.
Court on Wednesday told Reuters that she stuck by her views on same-sex marriage but denied she was anti-gay.
"I actually love homosexual people," the 69-year-old said in a telephone interview. "I do not have anything against them. It's just my view (about gay marriage) and it's in the scriptures ... The bible will always be the TV guide to my life.
"I believe marriage is something between a man and a woman."
Court said she had previously expressed to Navratilova that she would not change her views.
"I said 'Martina, God loves you but a wrong does not make a right... Don't try to change me'."
Court, who plans to attend the Australian Open, said she was "sad" protesters might seek to use the tennis as a venue for expressing their views.
"Minority groups can have their views (but) as soon as a Christian stands up it's not allowed," she said.
Same sex marriage is legal in a number of countries and in several states in the United States, including New York. But it remains illegal in Australia; although same sex partners have equal rights to heterosexual couples under other areas of the law.
The "Rainbow Flags over Margaret Court Arena" Facebook page is calling on people to break their silence in supporting the initiative.
"Our Mission: To support the gay community by inundating MCA with rainbow flags during the Australian Open," it says.
Australian Open organisers have bolstered security in recent years after the grand slam was marred by a number of violent incidents between rival ethnic camps of tennis supporters, but would not be drawn as to how they would respond to the possibility of the "rainbow" protest unfolding.
"We will be having our usual security review as the tournament nears and obviously this is something we are aware of and will need to prepare for," tournament director Craig Tiley said.
"Margaret Court has won more grand slam titles than any other player and has been honoured for her achievements in tennis. She is a legend of the sport. We respect that her playing career is second to none. But her personal views are her own and are not shared by Tennis Australia."
Equal Love, a national campaign advocating gay marriage, endorsed the initiative and said they expected at least 1,000 people to participate.
"Margaret Court has shown herself to have bigoted views... We would not think that the tournament organisers would regard people's right for equality in love to be considered a security incident," a spokesperson for the campaign told Reuters.