Across the Washington region, church leaders and worshipers were still trying to absorb Obama’s unexpected announcement during an ABC interview Wednesday that he now thinks same-sex couples should be allowed to marry. Churchgoers from various denominations responded in ways as different as the political, cultural and ethnic diversity that increasingly defines the region and its beliefs.
It was unclear how Obama’s stance on same-sex marriage will affect his reelection prospects among area churchgoers who supported his first bid for president. Most voters have indicated in polls that they are chiefly concerned about economic issues.
In Maryland, some pastors who oppose same-sex marriage said the president’s action has energized their efforts to force a public vote on the same-sex marriage bill approved by the state legislature in February and signed into law by Gov. Martin O’Malley (D) in March. Several held prayer rallies and began collecting petition signatures. In Virginia, where voters overwhelmingly approved a referendum in 2006 affirming marriage as the union between a man and a woman, officials of the state Catholic Conference said they were disappointed by Obama’s announcement.
“It is important for people to recognize that marriage had a designation and a purpose long before any nations or laws were established,” said Jeff Caruso, a spokesman for the conference in Richmond. “The proper role of government is not to define the institution of marriage, but to preserve and protect it.”
But some priests, especially those in more liberal and diverse parishes, took a different position. At St. Charles Borromeo Catholic Church in Arlington County, the Rev. Clement Aapengnu delivered a Mother’s Day sermon that focused on the inclusiveness of love and the importance of tolerance.
In an interview afterward, he suggested that marriage is a “human phenomenon” rather than a religious one. “Who has the authority to define what marriage is?” he asked. “We in the church must respect its traditions. But marriage is a gift and a covenant of love that should be respected.”
Aapengnu said Obama must act as “president of all Americans, not just of Catholics. The beauty of America is that it is a melting pot.”
“We live with multiplicity. Once we lose that perspective, we’re in trouble,” Aapengnu said.
Members of the Arlington church had many opinions. Maria Cruz, a mother of three from El Salvador, said she thought Obama was wrong to support something “ugly and horrible” that the Bible has declared a sin. But Ian Smith, a financial analyst, said he thinks that individuals have “the right to be happy” and that Catholic leadership is “behind the times” in resisting social change.
Others expressed strong spiritual beliefs and evolving social views.
“This is not an easy issue. I believe gay people should have the same opportunities we have, but I also understand where the church is coming from,” said Germaine Leakey, 56, who was arranging flowers in the church. She said her daughter was planning to marry her boyfriend but has a close college friend who is marrying his. “They are both thrilled,” she said. “If this is something our children accept, how can we not do the same?”
Brenda Kibler, who attended a service at Refreshing Springs Church of God in Christ in Riverdale with her son, a Marine stationed in the Washington area, said she was not happy with the president’s move. “Politically, he is a good president, but I disagree with him in the case of same-sex marriage,” she said.
Kibler’s pastor, Elder James Jordan, voiced no doubts. After the service, he said he had quoted from the Bible and told his congregation: “Scriptures don’t evolve. They are settled in Heaven, and the word of God doesn’t change.” Jordan said he was “disappointed” in Obama’s statement on such a “vital issue” to young Americans. “The president is being political, but it has spiritual ramifications.”
In Baltimore, Pastor Jamal Bryant of Empowerment Temple, an independent African Methodist Episcopal Church, was even more forceful in his denunciation. In an interview before stepping into the pulpit of his 9,000-member church, Bryant said, “On this Mother’s Day, there is a call back to family values and the biblical model of how a family should be measured out.”
“I didn’t see it coming,” said Bryant, who called the president’s stance “unnecessary.”
Some African American churchgoers said they are worried about whether Obama might be becoming less concerned about issues of importance to them, including jobs and health care.
But the Rev. Al Sharpton, one of Obama’s strongest supporters on the same-sex marriage issue, said the president’s comments took courage. “ I intend to support him,” Sharpton said in a telephone interview from New York. “I intend to stand against the clergy that don’t support him. . . . I don’t think that you can have selective civil rights.”