D.C.'s social changes shift clergy's place at the table

By Tim Craig and Hamil R. Harris
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, November 25, 2009

It wasn't that long ago that "there was no such thing as putting a pastor on hold" when the leader of a D.C. church called city hall, said the Rev. Patrick J. Walker of the New Macedonia Baptist Church in Southeast.

But when Walker, whose church has 2,000 members, asked to sit down with D.C. Council members this summer to discuss same-sex marriage, some of them wouldn't meet with him, he said.

"This city certainly is no longer church-friendly," Walker said.

The clout of the local faith community, particularly the black church, in D.C. politics has been declining for decades. But with the council heading for a vote next week on a bill to legalize same-sex marriage, the near-certain passage of the legislation has come to symbolize both political and spiritual changes in the District.

Ministers who oppose same-sex marriage say they now feel belittled, ignored and isolated by a government that no longer views the clergy as a mighty political force. Activists, political leaders and some ministers who have come to tolerate, if not embrace, same-sex relationships argued that socially conservative ministers just chose to fight a battle they had lost years ago as the city changed around them.

Everyone cautioned that the highly personal nature of the marriage debate makes it difficult to determine whether the tense relationship will spread to future policy debates. But all agree that black churches are no longer the force they used to be in local politics as the city becomes whiter and wealthier and a new generation of pastors gains standing.

"I am very, very surprised with what seemingly little opposition there is here" to same-sex marriage, said Sterling Tucker, who in 1974 was elected the first council chairman after Home Rule. "It's a sign of the changing leadership in the pulpits of Washington and also the changing culture of the community."

The same-sex marriage bill has the support of 11 of 13 council members, and the Board of Elections and Ethics has twice rejected requests by a group of ministers for a referendum on the issue, ruling in favor of gay rights activists who argued that such a vote would be discriminatory. And when the Catholic Archdiocese of Washington raised concerns about whether its charities would have to recognize same-sex married couples, several council members and staffers dismissed the church as irrelevant.

"I believe that the church has become like the invisible man," said Rev. James Coleman, pastor of the All Nations Baptist Church in Northeast.

Internal disagreement

Not all church leaders see the inevitable passage of the same-sex marriage bill as a commentary on their influence in the city. Indeed, more than 200 local religious leaders have come out in favor of same-sex marriage, reflecting the large network of progressive churches in the city.

And even among the more conservative, mostly Baptist, religious leaders, there is disagreement over how aggressively to wade into the issue.

While Bishop Harry Jackson of Hope Christian Church in Beltsville and other ministers who oppose same-sex marriage dominate the headlines, many of the city's well-known faith leaders have purposely avoided becoming publicly entangled in the debate.

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