The Rev. Al Sharpton and prominent African-American clergy on Friday urged black voters to set aside their personal and religious views on gay marriage and think of Maryland’s November ballot referendum as a question of civil rights that follows blacks’ own struggle for equal treatment under the law.

“This is not an issue about gay or straight, this is a issue about civil rights and to take a position to limit the civil rights of any one is to take a position to limit the civil rights of everyone,” Sharpton said at a press conference attended by a dozen pastors and ministers who had traveled to Washington to attend the annual Congressional Black Caucus Prayer Breakfast.

Rev. Delman Coates, senior pastor of Mt. Enon Baptist Church, Clinton, Md., speaks while Rev. Al Sharpton, president, National Action Network, right, and Rev. Dr. Howard-John Wesley, senior pastor of Alfred Street Baptist Church, Alexandria, Va., look on as they announce support for the civil marriage of gay and lesbian couples during a news conference at the National Press Club in Washington, Friday, Sept. 21, 2012. The ministers urged Maryland residents to vote for Question 6 on the November ballot. (AP Photo/Cliff Owen) (Cliff Owen/AP)

Polls show that on Nov. 6, Maryland could become the first in the nation to legalize same-sex marriage by a popular vote. A divided African-American electorate has helped torpedo similar measures over the last decade in dozens of other states.

In the last six months, however, a series of high-profile endorsements has given gay-rights advocates hope that more in the black community may be warming to the issue.

In May President Obama said he believes same-sex couples should be granted the right to marry. The NAACP’s board of directors followed suit shortly after, lending its support to same-sex marraige. Even black sports figures, including Baltimore Ravens linebacker Brendon Ayanbadejo, have forcefully supported Maryland's efforts to legalize gay marriage.

Friday’s gathering atop the National Press Club was led by Rev. Delman Coates, senior pastor of the 8,000-member Mt. Ennon Baptist Church in Prince George’s County, the majority African-American county which will factor heavily in the referendum’s outcome.

He and others stressed that the referendum would not force Maryland churches to perform same-sex marriages, but only to allow those that wish to perform the ceremonies to do so, and for couples to obtain marriage certificates from the state.

“History has shown us the painful lessons of attempting to govern based upon subjective religious beliefs. The Bible was used to justify slavery. It was used to defend the subjugation and the subordination of women,” Coates said. “In a real sense, this is about preserving our democracy. We cannot as a nation spend billions of dollars every week to export freedom abroad, and then enact laws that deny freedom of fellow Americans here at home. That is not right.”

Even as a handful of African-American clergy promoted a competing event to showcase opposition to gay marriage, Friday’s event was hailed by gay-rights advocates as an unprecedented display of support by African-American religious leaders.

“We cannot have justice for some and exclude others,” said Rev. Dr. Frederick D. Haynes III, pastor of the 12,000-member Friendship-West Baptist Church in Dallas. “Justice is what love looks like in public policy. I implore, I encourage, all of my brothers and sisters, especially those of you in faith in the great state of Maryland, you are ushering in a marvelous movement.”

The Rev. Dr. Amos C. Brown, of the Third Baptist Church in San Francisco, was more direct:

“I say to all of the Marylanders, don’t forget ... don’t trample on the grave of Martin Luther King. Make sure you are concerned about everybody having the right. For the black community does not own the civil rights movement.”