African Americans respond to Obama's shift on DOMA

The White House says President Barack Obama is "grappling" with his personal views on gay marriage even as he's ordered the Justice Department to stop defending the constitutionality of a law that bans it. (Feb. 23)
Washington Post Staff Writers
Tuesday, March 1, 2011; 8:36 AM

When same-sex marriage was upended in California by popular vote in 2008, gay rights activists pointed to one factor: religious African Americans who came out in record numbers for President Obama but who also largely voted against the marriage proposal, according to exit polls.

Two and a half years later, religious African Americans are having a more nuanced response to an announcement last week by the Obama administration that the government will no longer defend a federal law banning same-sex marriage.

Some say the decision is dismaying, though not damning. Others may be rethinking their views, given the influence Obama has in the African American community. And there are those who don't seem to care much at all.

"I don't think that this is a deal breaker in terms of whether we are going to support the president ... but it doesn't help," said Cheryl Sanders, pastor of a small church in the District, who described herself as fairly conservative theologically.

She is among the 68 percent of churchgoing African Americans who oppose same-sex marriage and among the 90 percent who support Obama.

As a question on its own, churchgoing African Americans are against same-sex marriage. But when the issue is wrapped up into a larger political context, it becomes just one of many and generally not the deciding one, said the Rev. Al Sharpton, an Obama ally.

"I remember in 2003 when I said I was for gay marriage. I got a lot outrage from my fellow ministers," Sharpton said. "I've been on my radio show and on conference calls with other pastors, and I haven't heard any outrage on this position."

Still, blacks remain the ethnic group least likely to support same-sex marriage. Only 30 percent say they back the unions, compared with 53 percent of all Democrats, 44 percent of whites and 41 percent of Hispanics, according to polling from the Pew Research Center.

Anthony Evans, a minister who heads the National Black Church Initiative, had a strong negative reaction to the announcement that Obama no longer believes the Defense of Marriage Act, called DOMA, is constitutional. After Obama told Attorney General Eric Holder to stop defending it, the minister put out a statement condemning the decision.

"The president has harmed himself on this issue," he said. "He has openly offended the black church, and he didn't need to do it." But Evans plans to continue to support Obama on other issues, such as preventing a rollback of health care reform.

Rev. Henry P. Davis, pastor of the First Baptist Church of Highland Park in Landover, was lukewarm on the issue, saying the issue of gay rights doesn't resonate with his parishioners. "I know that there is a great wrestling nationally around this issue, but [here] people are still mainly concerned about their everyday economic existence, those issues are much larger," Davis said.

An open question, said J. Kameron Carter, an associate professor in theology and black church studies, is whether Obama's shifting policy on same-sex marriage will impact black attitudes on the issue.

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