Thanks to anti-gay Republicans and many spineless Democrats in the state legislature, Tennessee voters next year will most likely approve an amendment to engrave discrimination against gay and lesbian couples into our state's constitution. Eighteen states have already approved similar anti-gay-marriage amendments as part of a national effort by the Republican Party to divide and conquer the base of the Democratic Party.
The Republican Party won the allegiance of white Southern conservatives by championing "states' rights," opposing "activist federal judges" who ordered an end to segregation, and embracing the bigotry of conservative Christianity.
The GOP is now courting African-American voters by embracing conservative black clergy and an exclusionary right-wing theology at odds with the inclusive theology espoused by Martin Luther King Jr. President George Bush and the GOP have used "faith-based" government handouts and the Federal Marriage Amendment to win over a few black clergy and churches.
Civil marriage is not the same as religious marriage. Churches are not required to perform or recognize marriages that conflict with their religious beliefs. Rather, civil marriage for gays and lesbians is about legal rights under the secular law and the Constitution of the United States.
African Americans should remember that the same arguments used to oppose the rights of gays and lesbians to marry were used to support laws against interracial marriage a few decades ago. Religious fundamentalists quoted biblical passages to support keeping the races separate, just as they used the Bible to support segregation and slavery.
Civil rights are not just based on biological characteristics such as race and sex. Our laws and courts also recognize civil rights based on religion, marital status, and other matters relating to freedom of conscience.
Gays and lesbians played important roles in the struggle for civil rights. A black gay man, Bayard Rustin, organized the 1963 March on Washington. When Rustin was attacked by other black clergy and opponents of the civil rights movement, King stood by him.
Many other African-American civil rights leaders are strong supporters of the civil rights of gays and lesbians. Representative John Lewis, one of the original speakers at the 1963 March on Washington, has spoken out in favor of gay civil rights, including marriage. Jesse Jackson, Al Sharpton, and Julian Bond are among many others who support equality for gays and lesbians. The National Black Justice Coalition has launched a campaign to build support for marriage equality and stop the proposed Federal Marriage Amendment, which would be the first constitutional amendment to specifically restrict the civil rights of a group of U.S. citizens.
On the 30th anniversary of her husband's assassination, Coretta Scott King addressed a gay and lesbian audience at the Creating Change Conference in Atlanta. I was there. She said, "I still hear people say that I should not be talking about the rights of lesbians and gay people, and I should stick to the issue of racial justice. But I hasten to remind them that Martin Luther King Jr. said 'Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.' I appeal to everyone who believes in Martin Luther King's dream to make room at the table of brother and sisterhood for lesbian and gay people."
Even if we do not share the same religious beliefs, we can work together to defend equal rights for everyone as guaranteed by the Constitution of the United States. n
Jim Maynard is a Memphis gay activist.