Same sex marriage faces hurdle among African-American church leaders

Marriage ammendment panel
The Rev. Jerry McAfee, left, discusses the issue of same-sex marriage with other members of a panel assembled at New Salem Missionary Baptist Church in Minneapolis, Minn. Tuesday, July 24, 2012.
MPR Photo/Jeffrey Thompson

Marriage amendment supporters in Minnesota are counting on strong support from the African-American community on Election Day, when they hope to effectively block same-sex marriage in the state constitution.

The Rev. Jerry McAfee is on their side. As pastor of New Salem Missionary Baptist church, believes marriage between a man and a woman is based on teachings in the Bible. Tuesday night at his Minneapolis church, he brought together Baptist and Pentecostal preachers and a representative of the Minnesota Catholic Conference so they could all say why they support the ballot measure - and hear from opponents of the measure as well.

One of the ministers, Pentecostal Bishop Richard Howell, told the audience that acceptance of same-sex marriage was weakening society, and, and that "it's time for the church to open its mouth, not be silent another day in her life."

Among the amendment's opponents on the stage were state Rep. Karen Clark and state Sen. Scott Dibble. The two Democrats from Minneapolis are both openly gay, and Dibble held up a picture of his husband -- they were married four years ago in California -- as he spoke in favor of a society that treats all its members equally under the law.

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"I will never make the equation that this is the same as the civil rights struggle that the African-American community has been through," he said. "But it is about access to freedom and justice in our Constitution, and the ability to love the person you love."

African-Americans are among the groups least likely to support same sex marriage, according to the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life. The organization finds black Protestants are second only to white evangelicals in their opposition to same sex marriage.

State Sen. Scott Dibble
State Sen. Scott Dibble, DFL-Minneapolis, displays a photo of he and his partner during a panel discussion regarding the issue of same-sex marriage at New Salem Missionary Baptist Church in Minneapolis, Minn. Tuesday, July 24, 2012. Sen. Dibble opposes the proposed marriage amendment.
MPR Photo/Jeffrey Thompson

President Barack Obama's recent endorsement of same-sex marriage was disparaged by several of the speakers. The mostly African-American crowd of about 100 remained quiet as amendment opponents made their cases, but applauded vigorously when the ministers spoke. And during a question-and-answer session, men and women lined up to make statements of their own, generally in support of the amendment.

"We are all here, existing today because of a union between a man and a woman," Jack Burnett, of Shiloh International Ministries, said to loud applause. Families in his community are already suffering, he added, and same-sex marriage would mean more children wouldn't be raised by a husband and wife.

Opposing the amendment, Sheila Bland of Minneapolis described the hardship of being lesbian and African-American - and how many families have gay or lesbian members they don't talk about.

Pastor McAfee responded that gays and lesbians are welcome in his church. Some have even worked there, and he's comfortable with that.

Sheila Bland
Sheila Bland of Minneapolis, Minn. addresses panel members during a discussion regarding the issue of same-sex marriage at New Salem Missionary Baptist Church in Minneapolis, Minn. Tuesday, July 24, 2012. Bland, who is a lesbian, said same-sex relationships cannot be put into a black or white classification.
MPR Photo/Jeffrey Thompson

But, he added, "You got to confess this thing is pushed more in our community by the white GLBT community."

Bland said afterwards that she disagreed with the organizers of the forum who don't recognize same-sex marriage as a human rights issue.

"I am in my sixties. I am a gay woman. I lived with a woman, we had a baby, the baby is now in her 20s and she's married to a man and she has a little girl," she said. "The GLBT issue is not a separate issue outside the African-American community."

Still, McAfee says he's unhappy with Minnesota Democrats and President Obama for supporting same-sex marriage and, in his view, putting that issue ahead of other issues facing the black community. At the forum, he urged ministers to prevent the DFL from organizing at their churches until they have a meeting with the party chair and the head of the Obama campaign in Minnesota.