By Jay Tokasz
NEWS STAFF REPORTER
Black clergy have long opposed the march toward legal same-sex marriages. Now, they’re also challenging the growing efforts of gay-marriage supporters to frame the issue as a civil rights cause.
The Rev. William Gillison, pastor of Mount Olive Baptist Church, a large African-American congregation on East Delevan Avenue, said he is insulted by the comparison.
“We know what we have gone through as an ethnic group. We feel the terminology, the definition itself, has really been hijacked,” he said. “Unfortunately, it’s just another ploy to garner more support from people who may not understand what the civil rights struggle was all about.”
Bishop Michael A. Badger, pastor of Bethesda World Harvest International Church on Main Street, said that he doesn’t doubt there is discrimination against gay people but that it is hardly on the order of what African-Americans have encountered and still face.
“As an African-American, I don’t have a choice in the color of my skin. I have a choice in whether I’m abstinent or not,” Badger said. “I don’t think you can compare the two.”
Pastor Jeffery Bowens, who leads Love Alive Christian Fellowship on Genesee Street, also disagrees with the comparison.
“It doesn’t add up to me,” Bowens said. “It’s really attempting to get empathy more than anything else.”
In April, Gov. David A. Paterson, who is black, compared the fight to eliminate slavery in the 1800s to the current effort to legalize gay marriage. He later chided religious leaders for not having spoken out against discrimination of gays.
Most black pastors, here and elsewhere, remain overwhelmingly opposed to gay marriage on religious grounds and objected to Paterson’s characterizations.
Among the region’s black clergy, the Rev. Gerard Williams stands largely alone.
Williams, who leads Unity Fellowship of Christ, a small, fledgling congregation, echoed Paterson’s remarks, saying, “Oppression is oppression.”
“If Dr. [Martin Luther] King had to weigh in on it, he’d come down on the side of the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community,” said Williams.
Clergy who oppose gay marriage don’t want to hear that argument, he added, because they have “become the very thing that oppressed them.”
If same-sex marriage becomes legal in New York, Williams anticipates he will field quite a few more telephone calls from couples hoping to tie the knot. And he would be happy to perform the ceremony.
“It was not Christ’s intent that anybody be left out. It was not Christ’s intent that anybody be judged and condemned,” he said.
Sylvia Ruhe, director of religious affairs for the National Black Justice Coalition, hailed Paterson as an “old school civil rights leader” for his strong stance in favor of gay marriage.
“Confronting and challenging homophobia is some of the unfinished business of the civil rights movement,” said Ruhe, whose organization is based in Washington, D. C. “The United States of America has never lost a civil rights battle. We’re not going to lose this one.”
Five states — Massachusetts, Connecticut, Vermont and, most recently, Iowa and Maine — already have legalized same-sex marriage, and Tuesday, New York’s Assembly, which is controlled by Democrats, passed a bill by a margin of 89 to 52 that would make gay marriages legal.
The measure is expected to go to the State Senate, which also is controlled by Democrats. If a bill is approved there, Paterson has said he would sign it into law.
The most recent poll, conducted by Quinnipiac University last week, found New Yorkers split 46 percent to 46 percent on whether same-sex couples should be allowed to marry. An earlier poll by Siena College found 53 percent of state residents in favor of making gay marriages legal.
African-Americans were the only ethnic group in both polls to say they did not approve of gay marriage, by a margin of 57 percent to 35 percent in the Quinnipiac survey and by 49 percent to 44 percent in the Siena study.
Black ministers — along with the state’s Catholic bishops — remain among the most vehement opponents of the measure.
“My opposition to this is very simple. It’s not my biblical understanding of what marriage is,” Gillison said. “We believe when you’re talking marriage, it’s between a man and a woman. We don’t even believe marriage is man’s idea. It’s God’s idea. This has always been for us an issue that is one in the spiritual realm, not the political realm.”
The Catholic bishops note that their stance is “not simply a matter of theology, and religious values are not the sole source of opposition to this plan.”
Encouraging marriage between a man and woman, the bishops said in a statement, serves the state’s interests because children raised in homes with a mother and father are more likely to become good citizens, creating wealth, stability and security for society.
Marriage between one man and one woman historically “has made our society strong,” added Bowens, who expressed concern about whether approval of gay marriage would open the door for practices such as bigamy or polygamy.
“Is it going to cause society to deteriorate?” he said. “Where do we end up if we keep discarding the things that have kept us together? . . . It’s confusing. It’s disorienting.”
Some local black clergy said they oppose same-sex marriage but they were uncomfortable elaborating because they didn’t want to upset gay and lesbian members of their churches. They said they consider any sexual activity outside of traditional marriage between a man and woman to be sinful. But they also did not want to dwell on negative behavior or judge parishioners who are gay, they said.
The Rev. John Young, pastor of Fellowship Christian Center, maintains an informal “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy with members of his congregation.
“My position has always been, ‘I don’t want to know.’ Church is not the place to talk about sex,” he said.
Young said he wouldn’t perform a gay marriage in his church even if it were legal to do so.
But, he added, he doesn’t turn anyone away for worship in his church, because “our job is to preach the love of Christ so that they can be set free.”
And he is less concerned about the impact of the marriage legislation.
“It’s going to come to a vote, and at the end of the day, it doesn’t affect the church at all,” he said. “There’s no mandate that the church has to perform one of these weddings, and they won’t.”
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