- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 21, 2009

In the District, where blacks are the majority and black church congregations dominate, the D.C. Council’s recent vote to recognize same-sex marriages may signal that the gay rights movement is making inroads among groups traditionally opposed to it.

With this month’s vote, the District became the first place in the United States with a majority of black residents to take up the issue. Congress still has the final say over the District’s laws, but gay rights activists now have reason to think that strong opposition is gradually giving way to more acceptance, despite a forceful outcry by some black churches.

The issue is particularly complex in the District, where nearly 60 percent of the residents are black. Of the states that allow gay marriage - Connecticut, Iowa, Massachusetts and Vermont - none has such a large makeup of blacks.

Activist Donna Payne knows just how complex the issue is for the black community. A black preacher once told her she would be accepted into his church under one condition - that she didn’t tell anyone she was a lesbian. Ms. Payne said keeping quiet wasn’t possible.

“That’s the conundrum in the African-American community,” she said. “They don’t want to talk about it, but they know you’re there.”

The influence of black churches was evident as the D.C. Council debated whether to recognize same-sex marriages performed elsewhere. As more than 100 mostly black protesters gathered outside City Hall, D.C. Council member Marion Barry, a longtime supporter of gay rights, rejected the measure and sided with ministers who he said “stand on the moral compass of God.”

But Yvette Alexander, who also represents a majority-black ward, gave her support and accused some ministers of doubting her faith.

“They have questioned my Christianity. They have questioned my morality,” she said. Then, addressing the pastors, she said: “Everyone is equal under God, and there are a lot in the gay community that are at your very churches, in your congregations.”

Although black churches tend to be socially progressive and have a history of fighting for equal rights, most are theologically conservative, believing that Scripture condemns homosexuality, said Anthony B. Pinn, a professor of religious studies at Rice University.

They also view gay marriage as a threat to the traditional black family, which is struggling with high divorce and low marriage rates, he said.

“From their perspective, anything that runs contradictory to that understanding of the nuclear family poses a threat,” Mr. Pinn said.

It was amid this backdrop that Mr. Barry, who served four terms as mayor, declared “we may have a civil war” after the vote. He was the only council member out of 13 to oppose the measure.

Mr. Barry wasn’t the only one using such strong rhetoric.

“I am convinced that this is going to be the Armageddon of the marriage debate,” said Harry Jackson, a black bishop who has organized rallies opposing gay marriage and has been a national voice for conservative Christians on the issue.

Mr. Jackson, who lives in the District and leads a church in Beltsville, said he plans to lead a multiracial group of pastors from across the country to Capitol Hill this week to urge lawmakers to intervene in the District’s decision.

Congress has until July to review the measure. If it takes no action, the legislation becomes law automatically and could be a step toward allowing gay marriages to be performed in the District, an effort the D.C. Council intends to take on later this year.

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