Will the African-American clergy fall into the same trap as their white Southern brethren?

Thanks to anti-gay Republicans and many spineless Democrats in the Tennessee legislature, Tennessee voters in 2006 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 fundamentalist 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 liberation theology espoused by Dr. Martin Luther King. President Bush and the GOP have used “faith-based” government handouts and the anti-gay Federal Marriage Amendment to win over a few black clergy and churches.

World Overcomers Church, lead by the homophobic Rev. Alton Williams, recently raised thousands of dollars to publish ads attacking the civil rights of gays and lesbians. Bishop G.E. Patterson of the Church of God in Christ explicitly stated, “Nobody has a right to be gay.” No doubt these black churches and their leaders had a role to play in the passage of the anti-gay amendment in Tennessee, as well as Rep. Harold Ford Jr.’s change of heart in supporting the Republican’s anti-gay Federal Marriage Amendment.

A group of predominantly black churches sent a letter representing “Memphis City Churches” to area churches to ask for support in their anti-gay marriage campaign. The letter claimed that the government must “follow the will of the churches.” I would remind these clergy that our laws are based upon the secular U.S. Constitution. They must respect the separation of church and state. Churches are free to marry or not to marry as they please. The U.S. government cannot, however, discriminate against a group of people based on their religious beliefs, or the gender of the person they love.

These anti-gay clergy fail to distinguish between “civil” marriage and marriage as a religious institution. Civil marriage is not the same as religious marriage. Churches are not required to marry or recognize marriages that are in conflict with their religious beliefs. Civil marriage is about legal rights under the secular law and constitution of the United States. Gays and lesbians are seeking the legal rights and responsibilities of civil marriage; we are not asking anyone or any church to change their religious beliefs about marriage.

African-Americans should also consider that the same arguments used to oppose the rights of gays and lesbians to marry were used to support laws against inter-racial 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.

Some conservative African-Americans have questioned the minority status of gays and lesbians. Some even suggest that gays and lesbians are “stealing” from the civil rights movement. Like other social minorities, gays and lesbians have been, and continue to be, victims of blatant prejudice and discrimination. Civil rights are not the sole possession of one racial group in the United States, and rights are not a zero-sum game where giving to one group takes away from others. Nor are civil rights only based on assumed biological characteristics like 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, Martin Luther King stood by him and supported him. Dr. King maintained, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”

Many African-American civil rights leaders are strong supporters of the civil rights of gays and lesbians. Coretta Scott King has been a strong advocate of gay and lesbian civil rights. Rep. 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 a few of 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 restrict the civil rights of a group of U.S. citizens.

Anti-gay black leaders like Alan Keyes are at odds with the spirit of Dr. Martin Luther King and the civil rights movement. It is a mockery of “family values” to oppose the civil rights of gay and lesbian families. It is hypocrisy for Alan Keyes to claim to support “family values” and disown his lesbian daughter. Homophobic black leaders like Alan Keyes, G.E. Patterson and Alton Williams do not share the dream or vision of Dr. Martin Luther King.

On the 30th anniversary of her husband’s murder, 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 guaranteed by the Constitution of the United States.

(Jim Maynard is a Memphis gay activist.)

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