African Americans respond to Obama's shift on Defense of Marriage Act

Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, March 2, 2011

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.

More than two years later, religious African Americans are giving a more nuanced response to an announcement last week by the Obama administration that the government will no longer defend a federal law banning the recognition of same-sex marriage.

Some say the decision is dismaying, although 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 Washington, 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 oppose same-sex marriage. But when the issue is wrapped 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 such unions, compared with 44 percent of whites and 41 percent of Hispanics, according to polling from the Pew Research Center.

'Openly offended'

Anthony Evans, a minister who heads the National Black Church Initiative, had a strong negative reaction to the announcement that Obama no longer thinks the Defense of Marriage Act, called DOMA, is constitutional. After Obama told Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. to stop defending the law, 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 says he'll continue to support Obama on other issues.

The Rev. Henry P. Davis, pastor of First Baptist Church of Highland Park in Landover, said 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," Davis said.

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

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