African Americans do not own the patent on civil rights and morality, according to several prominent African American pastors who have joined the effort to support a referendum in Maryland to allow same-sex marriage.
The Rev. Al Sharpton, the Rev. Delman Coates of Mount Ennon Baptist Church in Clinton, Md., the Rev. Otis Moss III, senior pastor of Chicago’s Trinity United Church of Christ where the Obamas once worshipped, were among a dozen or so clergy members who spoke at a news conference at the National Press Club in Washington on Friday.
The leaders challenged fellow clergy who they say are using same-sex marriage as a “wedge issue” between Obama and African American voters.
“Why would you even suggest, after first fighting for the right to vote, should we give that right back now because someone disagrees with your denominational views,” said Sharpton, president of the National Action Network and a Baptist minister. “They are dealing with an issue that goes beyond a theological debate.”
“Justice doesn’t mean ‘just us.’ Justice is what love looks like in public policy,” said the Rev. Freddie D. Haynes, senior pastor of Friendship-West Baptist Church in Dallas. “All people in this country should be afforded the same rights. No one entity owns civil rights.”
Coates organized the press conference, capitalizing on the presence of many well-known pastors in town for the Congressional Black Caucus Annual Legislative Conference to build support for a November referendum on the Maryland Civil Marriage Protection Act.
“As pastors and clergy leaders we are here today to declare our unequivocal support for Maryland’s Civil Right Marriage Protection Act and to dispel the myth that all African Americans pastors are fundamentally opposed to the idea of marriage equality,” Coates said.
While the purpose of the news conference was to talk about a Maryland ballot initiative, the issue has sparked a much larger debate in the African American community over same-sex marriage and comes at time when some pastors are allegedly telling their congregations to abstain from voting versus supporting Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney or President Obama in November. In May, President Obama said he personally supported same-sex marriage and some people object to Romney’s proposed policy changes as well as his faith.
The Rev. Amos C. Brown, pastor of Third Baptist Church of San Francisco, said he took a social philosophy class taught by the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., in 1961. Brown said King would have agreed with those assembled at the news conference because he taught that “every person in this nation deserves respect and dignity and every person should have equal protection under the law.”
But the Rev. Ralph Martino, a radio host and pastor of First Church of Christ Holiness USA in the District, disagrees with the pastors. Martino, who appears regularly on the Trinity Broadcasting Network and hosts a weekly radio broadcast on Radio One, said he knows many Christians who plan to stay home in November because they can’t support the president or Romney.
“This is not about civil rights. This is about God’s plan for marriage. In their mind it is about equal rights and in our mind it is about extra rights,” Martino said in a telephone interview.
He said that while he isn’t telling people not to vote he understands what they are doing.
“They are taking a biblical stand to inform the Democrats and the Republicans that if they choose not to follow the footprints of Jesus Christ then we can choose not to follow you.”
Martino said he plans to join a newly formed faith-based independent political organization.
The African American voter turnout could be the critical difference in battleground states such as Virginia. The Rev. Howard-John Wesley, senior pastor of the Alfred Street Baptist Church in Alexandria, said he is working hard to prevent people from being sidetracked by the same-sex marriage debate.
“You can’t pinpoint any candidate on an issue and decide to stay home for that,” he said. “You can disagree on certain principles but I can still be out there casting my vote. For too long the church has been the advocate of what they are against and not what they are for and I don’t want to pastor people who stay home for one issue.”
Even though Obama left Trinity after comments made by former pastor the Rev. Jeremiah Wright surfaced, Moss remains a passionate supporter of the president. He has launched a national movement to mobilize people of faith across the country and on Election Day.
“We have a national campaign to mobilize black churches, to excite congregations to take up offerings for people in states that are dealing with voter suppression,” he said. “There will be funds available for people to purchase their voter IDs in states like Pennsylvania, Ohio and even in Indiana.”