By Matthew Mosk
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, January 28, 2006
Maryland's African American lawmakers are deeply divided in the emerging debate over same-sex marriage, which forces them to balance their communities' bedrock religious convictions against a traditional commitment to civil rights.
In the short time since a Baltimore circuit court declared the state's ban on same-sex marriage unconstitutional, black Democrats in the General Assembly have reached consensus only on one thing: They don't want the matter put to a vote.
"We've been discussing it ever since the court issued its opinion," said Del. Joanne C. Benson (D-Prince George's). "There is a split. And no easy way to resolve it."
Consider Sens. Ulysses Currie and Gwendolyn T. Britt. Both are Democrats who represent progressive African American districts in Prince George's County. But they are on opposite extremes of a gulf that divides their communities.
Currie said he will be guided from the pulpit and by Christian constituents who on this issue alone, he says, "are as conservative as the conservatives."
Britt said she answers to the echoes of the civil rights era and supports gay men and lesbians because she knows "how to walk a mile in someone else's shoes."
The Legislative Black Caucus, perhaps the most reliable voting bloc in Annapolis on progressive issues, is now being lobbied heavily by Republicans to vote for a constitutional amendment against same-sex marriage, which would appear on the ballot in November. Democratic Party leaders, who believe that such a ballot measure would hurt their candidates for governor and U.S. Senate, are also pressuring many of the legislature's 42 black members.
"I'm just hoping and praying the courts will step in," said Currie, who attends an African Methodist Episcopal church.
The divide over gay marriage is not unique to Maryland. During recent elections in Georgia, Oklahoma and Ohio, black voters broke from the Democratic Party in significant numbers to support ballot initiatives against same-sex marriage, said Ronald Walters, a University of Maryland political science professor.
In Virginia, where the legislature just approved a constitutional amendment that would define marriage as a union between a man and a woman, seven black lawmakers voted for it, seven against.
Republicans in Maryland have submitted constitutional amendment proposals in both chambers. But for either measure to reach the floor, the party will likely need to execute a rare procedural maneuver in which the measures can bypass a committee vote. Republicans lack the numbers to do that alone, so African American members have become key targets.
The Legislative Black Caucus has taken the stance that a vote should wait until the state's high court issues a ruling, Benson said. When Baltimore Circuit Judge M. Brooke Murdock issued her decision on the state's 33-year-old ban last Friday, she stayed the ruling until appellate judges could weigh in.
Not everyone in the caucus wants to wait. Del. Emmett C. Burns Jr. (D-Baltimore County), for instance, said he plans to sign the GOP petition. "It's a matter of conscience," said Burns, who ministers to a Baptist congregation.
Regardless of whether a vote occurs this session, many believe that the marriage debate could alter the landscape of the 2006 elections. Supporters of Maryland Lt. Gov. Michael S. Steele (R), who is running for the U.S. Senate, say he stands to benefit. He has been aggressively courting church-going black Democrats to cross party lines.
"Obviously, having that issue surface is a tremendous help to us," said Leonardo Alcivar, Steele's campaign spokesman. "It's clearly a pivotal issue to members of the clergy and important to millions of Marylanders."
There is some evidence to suggest that the issue could help him attract Democratic voters, said David Bositis, a senior policy analyst who studies black voting trends for the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies.
A 2004 survey he conducted found that 70 percent of blacks oppose same-sex marriage, although some backed civil unions, a greater percentage than did the general population. Bositis also said exit polls from Ohio and Georgia showed about 60 percent of blacks supporting constitutional amendments banning same-sex marriage.
"Obviously, it's a position that African Americans support," Bositis said. "So in that sense, it would have some resonance. But to what degree it's still not clear."
The Human Rights Campaign, a Washington-based advocacy group, disputes the notion that the issue hurts African American politicians. It looked at how black state legislators across the country fared in reelection efforts after voting against marriage bans. It said that 101 of 104 won reelection, and of the three who didn't, none of the losses was attributable to their vote against a marriage ban.
But Philip Pannell, a gay rights activist in the District, said black suburban voters in Maryland have been heavily influenced by churches on this issue.
"That stuff will basically be supported by the black pastors, and I think most African Americans will vote for the same-sex marriage ban, I really do," Pannell said. "It's a shame."
Tomorrow, Bishop Harry R. Jackson Jr. is planning a sermon on the subject at Hope Christian Church in Bowie, said the Rev. Derek McCoy, associate pastor. "We have to stand up as a voice and defend what we believe is a sacred right between a man and a woman," McCoy said.
Jackson will also be urging church members to attend a rally Tuesday in Annapolis to press lawmakers to support the push for a constitutional amendment.
Other pastors, even some who are active on civil rights issues, said they would take no position in this political debate.
"For me, personally, it is a moral issue and not a civil rights issue," said the Rev. Jonathan Weaver, pastor of Greater Mount Nebo African Methodist Episcopal Church in Upper Marlboro. "In my 18 years of ministry, I have never had two men or two women come to me asking to be married. And secondly, there are too many other issues far more important to my congregation that need to be addressed."
Del. Carolyn J.B. Howard (D-Prince George's) said the church community is hard to ignore on this issue, especially when she agrees with them. Given the power invested in the Democratic leadership in Annapolis, she thinks it is highly unlikely that the measure will reach the floor of the House or Senate.
But if it does, she said, she has no doubts about what she will do.
"You don't compromise your principles when it comes to these issues. If it comes to the floor, no one will back away just because of what party leaders want," she said.
Staff writers Hamil R. Harris and Chris L. Jenkins contributed to this report.