Church's influence on politics shifting
D.C.'s same-sex marriage debate pushes some clergy further to the sidelines

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.

The Rev. Morris L. Shearin, pastor of Israel Baptist Church and former head of the city's NAACP branch, said he is steering clear of the debate because "there are more substantive issues" to "focus on, like education and fair housing."

"My perspective is framed by my understanding of Scripture," said the Rev. Derrick Harkins, 50, pastor of 19th Street Baptist Church. "But that may not be relevant to someone who doesn't form their life around the understanding of the Bible. . . . I would never, never want to say or do anything that marginalizes or dehumanizes anyone."

Harkins said the church is struggling to find its place in a changing city. He said churches have faced increasing challenges from residents over planning and zoning issues, and he noted that there is no longer an office of religious affairs. Instead, Mayor Adrian M. Fenty (D) appointed a director of community and religious affairs.

The changing status of D.C. churches reflects a political and social shift in the city that has been building since the early 1980s. Since then, many predominately African American churches -- and tens of thousands of their congregants -- have left the city for the suburbs. At the same time, the city has maintained a large gay population and experienced an influx of young professionals who have gentrified numerous neighborhoods.

The change has led to tensions in some neighborhoods, particularly in Ward 2, where some traditionally black churches have clashed with new residents over parking spaces on Sunday and, in one particularly divisive fight, over a gay bar that opened across the street from a church in the historical Shaw neighborhood.

African Americans, who private polls show are far more likely than white voters in the District to oppose same-sex marriage, made up 70 percent of the population in 1980. Today, according to census data, they account for 54 percent of the city's population.

"When I was campaigning, you go to these churches and, frankly, if you look in the parking lot, a lot of the cars have Maryland tags," said council member Michael Brown (I-At Large), who was elected in 2008. "But if you look at the gays and lesbians, they make up 19 percent of the electorate. That's a sizeable voting bloc."

Others put the percentage closer to 15 percent, but all agree that the gay men and lesbians are emerging as an influential political force. The D.C. Council has two openly gay members, one of them David A. Catania, an independent who was elected citywide four times.

In the District, black churches played a crucial role in both the civil rights battles of the 1950s and 1960s as well the city's push to secure Home Rule in 1973.

Tucker, who served on the council until 1979, noted that church leaders rebelled when he suggested in the mid-1970s that the city study the creation of a lottery, forcing him to abandon the idea. The lottery was eventually created in 1982.

"I lost a great deal of support from the religious community around the issue at the time," Tucker said.

Clergy as advisers

When Marion Barry was elected mayor in 1978, several African American ministers, including the late Rev. Ernest Gibson, William H. Bennett II and Bishop Walter "Sweet Daddy" McCollough, emerged as top advisers.

"I invited them in," Barry said in an interview. "They felt welcome, and they felt listened to, and they were listened to."

Now, Barry argues, "certain council members just don't respect" ministers.

Judging from the chilly reception he got at city hall this summer, Watkins couldn't agree more. He said council member Muriel Bowser (D-Ward 4) refused to meet with him to discuss same-sex marriage because he did not live in her ward.

Bowser, who represents a majority black ward, said she doesn't remember refusing to meet with Watkins. But she said in an interview that she will be supporting the same-sex marriage bill when it comes up for a vote Dec. 1.

"I don't think we can make a decision in our state institutions based on the church," Bowser said.

In 2006, Fenty swept every precinct in race for the Democratic nomination for mayor, even though he expressed unequivocal support for same-sex marriage and did not hide the fact that he had no home church. But Fenty managed to build relationships with several prominent faith leaders during his campaign by stressing his plan to invest more in neighborhoods.

"Pick another issue and the council members will listen to the ministers," said council member Phil Mendelson (D-At Large). "The council has been accepting of and supportive of same-sex marriage for year. . . . The ministers just can't come in and reverse that."

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