Holding a Bible and an 8-month-old baby, the Rev. Nathaniel B. Thomas stood before his congregation at Forestville New Redeemer Baptist Church on Sunday and declared that last week’s vote in the Maryland House of Delegates supporting same-sex marriage will spark a new battle.
“It ain’t over until God says that it is over,” Thomas said. “It took one woman to take prayer out of schools. There are too many weak-knee Christians. This is bigger than same-sex marriage. It is about changing society.”
Prince George’s County’s church community has been reflective of Maryland’s split on the issue, with preachers such as Thomas railing against same-sex marriage from the pulpit as busloads of churchgoers have traveled to Annapolis to speak out against something they believe tears at the fabric of the nation’s values. Yet other black church leaders in the region have stood with proponents of same-sex marriage, championing equality as legislators have moved to approve it.
Thomas and others who oppose the measure acknowledge that the 72 to 67 passage of a House bill legalizing same-sex marriage last week likely means the bill will become law. Sen. Brian E. Frosh (D-Montgomery), chairman of the Judicial Proceedings Committee, said in an interview Sunday that his panel could vote as early as Tuesday to send the bill to the full Senate — which approved a similar measure last year — and that it could reach the desk of Gov. Martin O’Malley (D) by the end of the week.
Those who oppose same-sex marriage in Maryland said their best hope of stopping it will be in the form of a statewide referendum, and in churches on Sunday preachers such as Thomas and the Rev. Joel Peebles, pastor of Jericho City of Praise, vowed to their church communities to push forward.
“This is really a wake-up call for the faith community,” said the Rev. Elwood Gray, pastor of the Peace in the Valley Baptist Church in Silver Spring. “We can’t really be mad at the supporters of this bill because they had a strong caucus and they lobbied, while too many churches have become inactive or their priorities have shifted away from the fundamentals of scripture.”
Even though Delman Coates, senior pastor at Mount Ennon Baptist Church in Clinton, shared the platform with O’Malley in support of the legislation, he wasn’t celebrating on Sunday. Instead, he used part of his three services to explain to his 8,000 members why he supported a bill that so many pastors in Prince George’s have opposed.
Coates said his support of the Civil Marriage Protection Act has a lot to do with the fact that he is a black pastor.
“The one thing that African Americans understand as a part of our experience in this country is injustice, discrimination and oppression as a matter of law,” said Coates, a graduate of Morehouse, Harvard and Columbia. “Historically, the black church has stood on the side of freedom, justice, and equality for all.
“When it comes to equal rights for our fellow citizens, regardless of what we think about their sexuality, the black church should not stand in the door blocking access to others,” Coates said. “Let others stand in the way of human and equal rights, but not the black church.”
While the ultimate battle over same-sex marriage might come in the form of a referendum before voters, Joan P. Gray, an usher at Forestville New Redeemer questioned why this bill is so important in Annapolis at a time when lawmakers have not dealt with other important issues.
“Look at this No Child Left Behind and the education of our children,” said Gray, who has three children and seven grandchildren. “Test scores are low, we have a high dropout rate; look at the number of children in detention centers — and you are going to spend more effort on same-sex marriage. You are not looking at my future. These kids are our future.”
Frank Brown, 23, a “life and relationship coach,” said the issue of same-sex marriage is not a clear-cut, right-and-wrong matter.
“We were kind of brought up seeing gay and lesbian couples in the schools. No matter how real or fake it was, it is not a shock to us today,” Brown said. “Now it is about how do we look at this in terms of our religious views.”
Even though Thomas raised her child up on the pulpit while speaking against same-sex marriage, Shanita Taylor, 28, said she is ambivalent: “Who am I to judge? There are more important issues.”
Staff writer John Wagner contributed to this report.