Bishop Harry R. Jackson Jr. grew up thinking everyone has a right to be heard and that the right to vote is a near-sacred privilege. The son of a civil rights activist who fled Florida with his family when a state trooper threatened his father at gunpoint, Mr. Jackson knows firsthand the struggles to be recognized in the democratic system.
But same-sex marriage, according to Mr. Jackson, is no civil right.
“How dare someone piggyback on the civil rights movement?” he said. “What you really have is an elite group of people masquerading as a minority and systematically imposing their will on the majority.”
And because he thinks he is among the majority in the District, he is committed to the fight to put same-sex marriage to a referendum after the D.C. Council last month passed legislation recognizing such unions performed in other jurisdictions.
“The council wants to be represented, but they don’t want the people they represent to have a voice,” Mr. Jackson said.
Mr. Jackson, 56, a graduate of Williams College and Harvard Business School, is a longtime opponent of same-sex marriage. He has preached at his home parish, Hope Christian Church in Beltsville, and churches across the nation about the issue — including in Florida, Arizona and California, states that have held referendums on same-sex marriage.
But nowhere does he consider the fight against same-sex marriage more important than in the District — which he has called “the Armageddon of marriage.”
“I think what will happen in D.C. will have an impact on national policy on marriage in a way that no other city or state will have had,” he said.
Reflective of a trend in the black community, Mr. Jackson considers himself to be fiscally liberal and socially conservative. Although he is a registered Democrat, he said he has not been able to vote with the Democrats on many national issues. He has lived in the D.C. area since 1988, residing primarily in Maryland and — as of this year — in the District.
Three weeks after the council passed the same-sex-marriage bill — widely thought to be a precursor to another bill in the fall that would allow same-sex marriages to be performed in the District — Mr. Jackson led the effort to overturn it by referendum. The elections board rejected the proposed referendum on the bill on the basis that it would have violated the 1977 D.C. Human Rights Act, which bars discrimination based on sexual orientation.
Last week, Mr. Jackson and six other petitioners filed a lawsuit in D.C. Superior Court seeking to overturn the election board’s decision to reject the referendum proposal.
A judge is now considering the petitioners’ request to delay implementation of the council bill, which is set to go into effect early next month — the end of the required congressional review period.
A “stay” on legislation is vital for referendum proponents to gather more than 20,000 valid signatures — or 5 percent of the registered voters in the city — before the law takes effect.
Mr. Jackson said he will continue to fight same-sex marriage in the District, even if the judge denies the motion for a stay.
“This is the first battle in a war — in a bigger skirmish,” Mr. Jackson said. “The other side determined that this is where it begins.”
He vowed that he and his supporters will take further legal action when the council introduces the anticipated same-sex-marriage bill in the fall.
“We do have a plan, and we’re not going away,” Mr. Jackson said.
Although the District argues that the proponents of the referendum do not deserve a stay because they waited three weeks to file a referendum, Mr. Jackson said he is proud of how fast his team responded.
“You hit us by surprise, you circumvented the system, and one could argue that a 30-legislative-day response time, you’ve got to be mighty fast,” he said. “We didn’t have legal teams already amassed. We did an amazing amount of work in a short period of time.”
Mr. Jackson’s opposition to same-sex marriage stems from a firmly held belief that same-sex marriage will hurt the institution of marriage, which he said is already suffering in the black community.
“Marriage in the black community is nearly at the extinction level, and right behind it, Hispanic and white communities are following,” Mr. Jackson said. “A decade from now, we continue on this trend, marriage as we know it will maybe become a historical afterthought.”
Awareness of the fragile condition of marriage is the reason, according to Mr. Jackson, that blacks voted against same-sex marriage in such numbers in referendums — especially in California, where 70 percent of blacks voted against it.
“Everybody in the black community knows that our families are all torn up,” Mr. Jackson said. “I don’t think you have to be a rocket scientist to say this is not going to strengthen marriage.”
Although he thinks society needed to atone for hundreds of years of slavery, lynching and dehumanizing of blacks, Mr. Jackson points to unanticipated fallout from the civil rights movement as one of the main reasons that marriage has depreciated in the black community.
“Slavery redefined a lot of stuff, but then in the ‘60s after the civil rights era, we found that a lot of the governmental programs made it easier for men not to own up to their responsibilities,” he said. “We helped our pocketbooks and hurt our homes.”
When asked if the civil rights movement was worth the price, Mr. Jackson responded, “I think the goal was worth obtaining — we got economic liberties and we got opportunities to ascend in boardrooms and other things — but I think you can’t sacrifice your children on the altar of your personal success.”
“My opposition has tried to cast this movement as the black pastors who are largely uniformed [and] out of touch as being the opposition to ‘the enlightened, liberal people who are simply seeking civil rights,’” Mr. Jackson said.
Prominent black leaders like the Rev. Jesse Jackson and the Rev. Al Sharpton, according to Mr. Jackson, have grown out of touch with the black community.
“I think they have decided that no matter what the church says at the grass-roots level, even though they’re reverends, [and] no matter what the community says, they see themselves as leading in direction that they know better than the people,” he said. “The black mega-church movement doesn’t receive leaders like Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton.”
Mr. Jackson said his church’s location in Beltsville, in part, reflects some of the consequences of the gentrification of the District.
“I think there’s a truth to the fact that the largest black churches in the region moved out of the city over the last 10 or 15 years to Prince George’s County, to a lesser degree to Virginia, and that a lot of D.C. citizens go to church in Maryland or Virginia.”
Of the 3,000 members of his church, he said approximately 15 percent to 20 percent reside in the District. Approximately 65 percent are black. And 30 percent are immigrants, most of whom are African or Hispanic.
In the days ahead, Mr. Jackson said that he hopes to work with leaders of other faiths, particularly Roman Catholics, to oppose same-sex marriage. He said that the focus needs to be overcoming what he views as ignorance about the unintended consequences of same-sex marriage.
Should same-sex marriage become legalized, Mr. Jackson said that he will move to “the other side of the equation” — strengthening marriage itself by teaching people about the role of the family and how to develop lasting marriages.
But until then, he said will keep on doing what he’s doing.
“All I did is say, ‘I believe the Bible,’” Mr. Jackson said. “But I know if I just give in now, they win. So I’m not mad at anybody. I don’t want to hurt anybody. I’m just worried about the next generation.”