Prince George's ministers make last-minute push against same-sex marriage bill

By Avis Thomas-Lester and Hamil R. Harris
Washington Post Staff Writers
Tuesday, March 8, 2011; 10:29 PM

More than a dozen ministers from churches in Prince George's County were among religious leaders lobbying Maryland lawmakers in a last-ditch effort to defeat same-sex marriage legislation, which they say violates God's law.

The Prince George's pastors said they took a stand on behalf of family. "We didn't come tonight against anybody. We came for the sanctity of marriage between a man and a woman," the Rev. Joel Peebles, pastor of the 19,000-member Jericho City of Praise in Landover, said Monday night in Annapolis.

He was accompanied by his wife, Yolanda, and dozens of church members as he headed for a meeting with Del. Veronica L. Turner (D-Prince George's). "We believe that this is something that is beneficial to children, so we had to bring folks here to support that," Peebles said.

The Rev. Nathaniel Thomas of Forestville New Redeemer Baptist Church said opponents of the legislation are not filled with hate or bigotry. "What we are focused on is the word 'marriage,' " he said. "We're not talking about anyone not having rights. But when you use the word 'marriage,' that goes directly to what the church believes is a relationship between a male and a female."

At the conclusion of the meetings, the preachers, along with Catholic and Jewish leaders, held a brief prayer vigil outside the State House in Annapolis, where they sang religious songs and asked for divine intervention in their effort to defeat the bill.

Although religious opposition to same-sex marriage, particularly from African American ministers in Prince George's and the Maryland Catholic Conference, is not new, religious lobbying is becoming particularly intense as a final vote approaches on the gay nuptials bill, most likely Friday. Debate in the House is scheduled to begin Wednesday.

Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley (D) has said he will sign it if it reaches his desk.

"This is extremely important," said Monsignor Edward Filardi of Our Lady of Lourdes Catholic Church in Bethesda, who was accompanied by several members. "They are not only changing the nature of marriage between a man and a woman, they are confusing an important distinction that defines marriage."

Supporters of the legislation have argued that the primary purpose of the bill is to give gay couples the same rights the government provides to heterosexual married couples. The bill contains language making clear that religious organizations are not required to participate in same-sex weddings or celebrations. Supporters argue that other people's religious beliefs shouldn't prevent them from being married in the eyes of the government.

The bill passed the Senate 25 to 21, without support from any of the black senators from Prince George's: Joanne C. Benson (D), Ulysses Currie (D) and C. Anthony Muse (D), who is also pastor of Ark of Safety Christian in Upper Marlboro. Prince George's, the nation's most affluent and best-educated majority-black jurisdiction, is home to some of the largest and most influential churches in the nation.

Last week, Del. Tiffany T. Alston (D-Prince George's) voted against the bill in committee even though she was a co-sponsor of the legislation, usually an indication of strong support.

Del. Melony G. Griffith (D-Prince George's) said she supports the state's current definition of marriage. "I've always opposed the bill," she said. "I support the state's definition of marriage and share the views of the constituency." Calls to her office have been running about 25 to 1 against the bill.

Not all African American lawmakers from the jurisdiction plan to vote the same way, however. The bill's co-sponsors include Dels. Tawanna P. Gaines and Jolene Ivey, both Prince George's Democrats. Baltimore's black lawmakers have generally been more likely to support the same-sex marriage bill. Four African American senators there voted for the bill, and several of its delegates are among the House co-sponsors. Some of the African American lawmakers who support the legislation have cast it as part of the civil rights movement.

Lt. Gov. Anthony G. Brown (D), a former delegate from Prince George's, has also been a vocal supporter of the bill.

Among black Prince George's ministers, there has been a groundswell against the bill. At a meeting Friday, about half the members of the Collective Empowerment Group, an organization of pastors representing 150 churches in the Washington area that is headquartered in Prince George's, were on hand for a vote opposing the bill, said the Rev. Jonathan L. Weaver, pastor of Greater Mount Nebo AME Church in Bowie.

"It was a unanimous vote," he said. "There was not one in that room who stood for that bill."

Weaver said he has also preached against the measure to his congregation, most of whom also oppose marriage for gays.

"I have spoken about it any number of times because I stand firm on the word of God," Weaver said.

Bishop Paul Wells of New Revival Kingdom Church of Capitol Heights said he welcomes all, regardless of ethnic origin, education, income level or sexuality. But his message is clear: Anything they are doing that conflicts with the Bible needs to stop.

"The Bible says [homosexuality] is an abomination before God," he said. "God created the institution of marriage and made marriage between a man and a woman. People ask me all the time, 'Would you marry a gay couple?' Absolutely not. I make that perfectly clear. . . . I welcome those who are homosexual into the church the same way I welcome liars and fornicators. But the expectation is that the word of God will change them once they get in. . . . God gave us free will, and so you are either against God's word or for God's word. There is no in between."

At services around Prince George's on Sunday, the bill was a popular subject. At First Baptist Church of Glenarden, the Rev. John K. Jenkins mentioned the bill in a message to his congregation titled "Fight for the Family." He said changing the definition of marriage to include a union between same-sex couples would be to "redefine marriage to suit sin." He urged opponents to maintain their stand despite the battle being waged by what he characterized as a strongly organized, well-funded gay lobby.

At Woodstream Church in Mitchellville, the Rev. Bob Wingfield urged his congregation to speak out against the bill to legislators.

"We should make calls, send faxes and e-mails," he said, citing examples from the Bible, including the 18th chapter of Leviticus, which outlines inappropriate relationships, including incest, marrying close relatives and homosexuality, as justification for opposing same-sex marriage. Wingfield warned his members during Sunday school to resist the "perverse and corrupt culture" in which homosexuality and other traditions he said are contrary to God's law are practiced.

"We are all like prophets," he said. "We must sound the alarm. We can't be silent."

The Rev. Joseph Bryan, 33, of the Greater Lighthouse Church in Lanham, who also preached about the bill, said any lawmaker who supports it is acting contrary to what he characterized as God's will.

"I stand with the Bible, and that says that God made marriage between a man and a woman," Bryan said. "I also made it plain that no matter what government says, God's government is higher, and that's what we should stand on. I can't understand how any politician can be a Christian and go for this bill."

Staff writer John Wagner contributed to this report.

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