Maryland referendums on gambling, gay marriage and immigrant tuition prompt soul-searching among black churchgoers

(Mark Gail/ For The Washington Post ) - Kyle E. Schooler, center, and others pray at First Baptist Church of Highland Park, one of about 800 mostly black churches in Prince George’s County.

(Mark Gail/ For The Washington Post ) - Kyle E. Schooler, center, and others pray at First Baptist Church of Highland Park, one of about 800 mostly black churches in Prince George’s County.

With the fog still burning off at 7:30 a.m., the Rev. Henry P. Davis III was just warming up, settling into the rhythm of a sermon about relying on faith during hard times. But two hours later, as the congregants filed out, many still remembered, word for word, one line.

“No matter what is on the ballot, I am going to stand on the word of God,” said Davis, pastor of First Baptist Church of Highland Park, a brick building with a white steeple just over a knoll from FedEx Field in Prince George’s County.

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Although he’d been vague, his flock knew exactly what he meant. And on a Sunday morning before the Nov. 6 election, in a county with 800 mostly black churches, it was a familiar refrain.

What didn’t need to be said was that Davis believes the Bible teaches that homosexuality and gambling are sins; that he will vote against measures to legalize same-sex marriage and to allow the state’s largest casino. And he would hope his congregants would do the same. On a third controversial measure, which would allow in-state tuition breaks for some illegal immigrants, Davis sees it as many other clergy do — as the kind of charity lauded by the Bible.

Not since Maryland voters were asked to weigh in on abortion 20 years ago has a ballot so deeply drawn church leaders in to the state’s political fray. Then, however, there was one emotional issue, and most were on the same side. This time, the religious community has focused on three key measures, and conflicting interpretations of Scripture and priorities have roiled congregations statewide.

A consortium of Protestant, Catholic, Jewish and Muslim leaders was among the most outspoken last year in Annapolis in promoting the state’s version of the Dream Act, which appears as Question 4 on the November ballot. The group has continued to be a force in the campaign, marshaling more than 500 members of the clergy to an event last week to praise the measure. Not all faiths are on board, but for churches, it’s turned out to be the easiest one on which to agree.

Clergy have split more forcefully on Question 6, about same-sex marriage. Most have remained opposed, but some vocal Episcopalians, Unitarians and leaders of black churches have supported the cause, casting it as a civil rights issue more than a religious one.

But in church, Maryland’s ballot measures have come to a head in Prince George’s more than anywhere else. And with polls showing that voters are leaning slightly in favor of same-sex marriage and the gambling measure a toss-up, the county could play a pivotal role in whether the measures pass.

The county is among the most religious in the state: Three quarters of likely voters in the majority African American county say they attend services at least monthly, according to a mid-October poll by The Washington Post.

Fully 45 percent of registered voters in the county who are African American say they have heard about same-sex marriage from their clergy, compared with 31 percent of blacks in the rest of the state.

And when religious leaders have spoken about gay marriage, fully 80 percent of the voters say they have heard their pastor register opposition and 9 percent heard a supportive message; 11 percent heard a mix of opinions. Roughly two-thirds of voters — black or white — who oppose same-sex marriage say their religious beliefs have the biggest influence on their views.

The importance of Prince George’s churches in the election has been intensifying for months.

African Americans in the county who are likely to vote oppose Question 6 by 60 percent to 38 percent, while those in the rest of the state are more divided: 45 percent in favor and 49 percent opposed.

Meanwhile, the expansion of gambling under Question 7 has also drawn heated opposition from pastors of black churches in the county. If approved, a new casino would likely be built at National Harbor by MGM Resorts.

“The way to financial prosperity in this county is not going to be at the gambling table,” Davis said in an interview. “The downside is too big. People in our congregation who can avoid traveling to a casino now may not if it is that much closer. Those who can least afford it will go.”

Mix it all together and it’s made for an intense round of soul-searching as voters reflect.

As Sylvia Tyner walked out of First Baptist Church last Sunday, the line from Davis’s sermon about the election and “standing on the word of God” was still resonating.

“I heard what he said,” said Tyner, a retired schoolteacher. “I’m praying about it. It’s kind of hard to decide what you would want to do, but you have to pray over it.”

Tyner, 82, explained: “I believe in what the Bible says: that God created man and woman.”

But she keeps coming back to another idea that’s proved important in her lifetime: “It’s only to be fair to other people,” she said. “I’m gonna vote, I know that. I pray I’ll know which way before I go.”

Tyner wasn’t alone. From latecomers in the back to choir members clad in white, many throughout the Highland Park sanctuary were in the same position.

“Can’t nobody judge you but God,” said Brian Snowden, 34. “I think [gays] should have the same rights as other people, but the Bible does say that marriage is between a man and a woman, and we can’t redo what the Bible says.”

Deacon Larry Harper, 74, a limousine driver who has been a member of First Baptist since 1965, was more resolute, even if it meant going against the Rev. Al Sharpton, who has spoken out in favor of Maryland’s same-sex marriage law. “I believe in civil rights, but anything going against God’s law, I am not for it, and Rev. Al Sharpton and I are friends.”

A few rows behind Harper, Howard Stone, in a thick, brown pinstriped suit and closely cropped white beard, was less worried about same-sex marriage than the gambling measure, which he supports.

“I try to be a great Baptist, and I love my pastor, but this is a bread-and-butter issue,” said Stone, the county’s former chief administrative officer. “Charity begins at home. We need to get this money here.”

Stone also went against his pastor on same-sex marriage, which he intends to support.

“This has been an especially big issue in the black church,” he said. “I appreciate our pastor’s recommendation, but it’s up to me how I’m going to vote.”

Scott Clement contributed to this report.

 
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