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Black Pastors and Gay Rights: D.C. Becomes a Battleground

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The nation's capital is suddenly center court in America's loud argument over gay marriage. Nothing new about that, except that this time the battle is being hashed out in the streets, churches and living rooms in working-class wards of the city. While there is something poignant about both sides literally singing the same hymn ("We Shall Overcome") at its rallies, there is also something refreshing about the debate taking place in the unofficial part of Washington, D.C: For once, it's not partisan.
That is not to say it's not a touchy issue. Gay marriage pits race and faith together in the same combustible conversation, and does so in a community in which both are sacrosanct subjects. The black Christian church predates emancipation by more than two centuries, and served as a bulwark against the pernicious effects of slavery, Jim Crow, alcohol and drugs, AIDS, poverty, crime, police brutality and bad schools.

In the face of all that, African-American pastors and their churches have offered up faith and love of family as twin defenses. Thus they have been an institution with a message that at its core is fundamentally conservative. And at the same time, it was from the pulpits of these very same black churches that emanated the commanding voices that demanded fundamental change to the old order. Make no mistake, the moral authority and raw political power of the civil rights movement was rooted in these self-same churches. And in that sense they were a liberating, as well as a stabilizing, force.

These contradictory forces of liberalism and conservatism have coexisted, not always easily, for centuries within the church. But gay marriage has opened a chasm in the black community, in which, to paraphrase (and modernize) Lincoln who, while speaking about the North and South during the Civil War, observed that each side reads the same Bible, prays to the same God, invokes His wisdom against the other – and belongs to the same political party.

In the local politics of Washington, the true power brokers are predominately black, monolithically Democratic and tuned into the religious sensibilities of their constituents. Thus, the discussion taking place here over gay marriage is really a series of conversations -- some within the black community and some within the Christian churches, and almost all of it within the Democratic Party. This is not altogether a bad thing. For starters, there's no Republican bogeyman, and for another, the race card is played to establish one's bona fides, not to stoke prejudice. Finally, the church-bashing rhetoric one finds in other places where this debate is taking place is muted here: Attacking the church would simply be a good way to lose the argument. And judging by the language being invoked by both sides, the stakes of this argument are high: Leaders of competing camps clearly believe that what unfolds here in unofficial Washington will be a harbinger for where this nation is heading on gay rights.

"The march towards equality is coming to this country, and you can either be a part of it or stand in the way," David Catania, one of two openly gay D.C. Council members, declared on May 5, as the council approved his pro-gay marriage measure.

"This is the Armageddon of the marriage debate," was the rejoinder offered by Bishop Harry Jackson, pastor of Hope Christian Church in Beltsville, Md., and author of a petition seeking to have the question put on the ballot for every voter in Washington. "It's a declaration of war."

On June 3, New Hampshire became the sixth state to legalize gay marriage. The sheer momentum of the issue seems inexorable, and not only to Catania. His bill simply states that marriages performed in other states shall be recognized in the District of Columbia. As a practical matter, this makes sense: The District is comprised of people who come from all 50 states. Shouldn't the marital status of those from other states be recognized? Yet Catania and his allies on the council weren't attempting to be practical; they were attempting to change the culture of the capital. If their bill becomes law, they stated, the obvious next step would be to offer measures making gay marriage legal in Washington.

And that's where Harry Jackson and his alliance of other black preachers came in.

"At one time, preachers were very powerful in this town as far as getting respect from elected officials like the (D.C.) Council," notes Henry A. Gaston, pastor of Johnson Memorial Baptist Church in Southeast Washington. "Today, however, it is as though they think we're asleep, but we will let them know we are fully alert."

Asserting that a majority of district residents are opposed to gay marriage, Jackson and Gaston have vowed to buck the City Council and stop Catania's proposal from becoming law. It would seem an uphill fight: First of all, there are many pastors on the other side of the issue. Secondly, Catania's bill passed the Council 12-1. But the key to understanding the politics of this controversy may be in the identity of the one, not the 12.

The dissenting vote was cast by Marion Barry, the former mayor who may want to be the future mayor. At 73 years of age, Barry has seen it all, and done most of it himself. He's known outside the city mainly for going to prison after being nabbed in a cocaine sting, but he was a civil rights worker as a young man and an early advocate of gay rights. He is also a cagey politician with an uncanny knack for divining the grievances of black Washingtonians. Barry knows that the pastors believe they are fighting for their relevance as well as their flocks; he knows of the social conservative inside many a Democratic-voting Baptist church lady; he knows that many blacks often bristle at the comparison between civil rights for racial minorities and gay demands that their unions be fully recognized as marriages. And he knows that a politician who gets too far out in front of the voters risks involuntary retirement.

"The African-American community is very conservative on this issue," Barry said recently in a radio interview. He estimated that 70 to 80 percent are opposed to gay marriage, adding that the number is higher in the religious community. "These Baptist pastors believe it's a sin," he said. "We're a democracy, as imperfect as it is...if you believe in representative democracy you listen to your constituents."

Barry recalled how, in 1971, he battled on the side of a gay teacher at McKinley Tech who wanted to keep his job. But Barry is convinced that in the minds of many, perhaps a large majority of the voters in his ward, there is a subtle, but important, distinction between sticking up for someone's right to a job and supporting church weddings for gays and lesbians.

Or, as Harry Jackson put it during a small rally he organized recently in Washington's Freedom Plaza, "There's a difference between civil rights and sacred rights. Marriage has been defined by God...so someone declaring it's a civil right is inanity."

Jackson and Barry have been denounced in some quarters as panderers to prejudice, but as Barry points out, correctly, his position is exactly the same as President Obama's. He's right about that, and he could have added to the list Hillary Clinton, Al Gore,and John Kerry, all of whom support civil unions but not marriage -- apparently believing that this is as far as politicians with national aspirations can prudently position themselves.

This lesson in realpolitik was learned the hard way by President Clinton in his first days in the White House. Back then, the gay rights issue that divided the country wasn't same-sex marriage -- Lordy, did that seem an exotic concept back then -- it was whether gays and lesbians should be allowed to serve in America's armed forces.

Clinton believed, naïvely, as it turned out, that he had the perfect man in place as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. This officer, whom Clinton had inherited from George H.W. Bush, was a combat veteran of Vietnam, a four-star general, and a Republican. Best of all, he was African-American, meaning that he knew prejudice when he saw it. At least, that's how Clinton saw it. But Gen. Colin Powell surprised his commander in chief, and not pleasantly, when they met privately in the first days of the new administration.

"Mr. President," Powell said, "we're not with you on gays in the military."

Nonplussed by the use of that pronoun "we," and unfamiliar with military culture, Clinton backpedaled a bit. Powell had spoken as an Army officer, not as a leader of the black community -- at least that's what the president believed. Actually, Powell may have been speaking as both, as the nation learned last Nov. 4, when he cast his presidential vote for Obama.

The state of California has long been a trailblazer in expanding the definition of human rights and the bounds of social tolerance. Yet on Nov. 4, 2008, the same day that California and the nation voted into office an African-American president, voters in the Golden State approved Proposition 8, an amendment to the state Constitution stating that "only marriage between a man and a woman is valid or recognized in California."

Seven million Californians voted in favor of this proposition, with 6.4 million casting votes in opposition. For activists, the result was a bitter pill, and in their frustration over their defeat, gay rights advocates turned their rage on targets ranging from the Mormon Church to an unfortunate musical theater director who had contributed $1,000 to the Yes on Proposition 8 campaign. But the hardest lesson for liberals to absorb was the unmistakable evidence from exit polls and precinct results showing that the same African-American voters who had flocked to the polls to support Obama had, while inside those voting booths, turned an overwhelming thumbs-down to gay marriage.

In some ways, the battle royal over gay marriage is a fight over who has title to that one dynamic word, "marriage." California has offered same-sex couples codified protection under domestic partnerships since 2000. Lawmakers in Washington, D.C., began taking those steps in 1992, and have increased the protection of domestic partners routinely since then. Yet, on Nov. 4, 2008 the future suddenly didn't seem written in stone. What appeared to be true, even to proponents of gay marriage, was that court fiats, Democratic Party platforms and big city council rulings in themselves won't be enough to win the day. Proponents of gay marriage must change minds if they are to prevail.

In Washington, that lesson has been taken to heart not so much by the 12 City Council members who cast predictable, politically correct votes, but by progressive pastors such as the Rev. Dennis Wiley of the Covenant Baptist Church in Washington. He's out to alter hearts and minds as well as laws, knowing that without a change of heart, the laws will sow discord and mistrust of government. And he's using faith and reason in an attempt to challenge venerable assumptions within his community.

"A lot of people will say God made Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve. Have you ever heard that?" Wiley said in a recent sermon. "If God didn't make Steve, who made Steve? Somebody had to make Steve. Why would God create someone of that orientation and then not allow them to have the same kind of opportunity for love, for relationships, for a healthy life as heterosexuals enjoy?"

And so the battle of ideas is joined. Rev. Wiley believes that ultimately his community will come around. He doesn't contest that the 70 percent opposition figure in the black community cited by Marion Barry – and confirmed in California – is wrong, exactly, but he believes it is soft opposition, and is therefore susceptible to reasoned argument as well as to appeals to faith from the liberal side of the divide.

Perhaps he's right. Or maybe, as Rev. Jackson and Bishop Gaston believe, the black church will prevail by doing what it has always done, championing the cherished and long-held values of African-American families. Gaston has raised the specter of Washington's children witnessing a parade of marriages between men or between women, and he expresses concern about the effects this would have on impressionable young people still forming their sexual identities. "Children go to such ceremonies," he said recently. "Children will be influenced into homosexual lifestyle."

To that argument, Dennis Wiley has a reply. "It is a much more healthy environment for children to be taught the truth: That everybody's not alike – that people are different."

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