Jonathan Wilson, who works at a Baltimore wax museum that celebrates black America’s rise from slavery, is warming to the idea that same-sex marriage is a civil right.
A black evangelical Christian, Wilson, 58, initially saw gay marriage as at odds with his religion. In the months since its legalization won support from President Barack Obama, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, and some ministers, he’s started to view limits on the unions as a lingering inequality. He said he may vote to support gay marriage when it’s on Maryland’s Nov. 6 ballot.
“Initially, I’m looking at it saying, ‘Why?’” said Wilson, who lives in a Baltimore suburb. “If I gave you my religious belief, I’d be adamantly opposed. But you can’t look at it from that perspective.”
Black voters have traditionally opposed gay marriage. Wilson illustrates a shift unfolding among blacks in Maryland, whose support for the measure has been increasing in polls. Maryland, along with Maine and Washington, will include similar measures on the November ballot and could become the first states in the U.S. to approve same-sex marriage at the ballot box.
Black opinion in Maryland shifted after Obama this year publicly backed same-sex marriage and the NAACP announced its support. A Pew Research Center national poll yesterday on Hispanics found that 52 percent said they supported gay marriage, a shift from 2006 when 56 percent opposed it.
While states are free to approve same-sex marriage, a 1996 federal law, the Defense of Marriage Act, bars the U.S. government from recognizing gay marriage. Yesterday, a federal appeals court in New York ruled unconstitutional the part of the law defining marriage as being only between a man and a woman. The issue may be decided by the U.S. Supreme Court.
Same-sex marriage is legal in Iowa, New York, Massachusetts, Connecticut, Vermont, New Hampshire and the District of Columbia. Those measures were approved as a result of legislation and court rulings. Voters have opposed same-sex marriage in every state where it has appeared on the ballot.
In Maryland, backers of gay marriage are making a direct appeal to blacks, who make up a quarter of the state’s voters, using television ads that feature ministers and a civil-rights leader explaining their support. The dynamics differ in Washington and Maine, where blacks account for a smaller share of the population.
In the Maryland ads, Delman Coates and Donte Hickman, Baptist pastors, emphasize that the measure won’t force religious groups to recognize unions contrary to their belief.
Julian Bond, a leader of the civil-rights movement in the early 1960s and the former chairman of the NAACP, appears in another.
“I know a little something about fighting for what’s right and just,” he says in the ad.
The Maryland ballot initiative is pitting minister against minister.
The group leading the fight against same-sex marriage, the Maryland Marriage Alliance, is headed by Derek McCoy, a pastor, and has drawn support from churches.
The black vote is a “critical linchpin to the election,” said Jamal Bryant, an opponent who leads an 8,000-member congregation in Baltimore.
Bryant said he sees gay marriage as a threat to traditional values and has spoken out against it to churchgoers.
“It disrupts the fabric of the culture,” he said. “It goes against our biblical understanding of what marriage represents in our society -- especially in the African-American community, where homes have already been fractured.”
Polls show increasing black support in Maryland, though differ on which side the majority supports.
A Gonzales Research poll conducted in mid-September found 44 percent of black voters in favor of same-sex marriage, up from 33 percent in January. A late September poll for the Baltimore Sun newspaper showed a larger shift: More than half of black likely voters were in favor, up from less than a third in March.
Still, more than a third were leaning one way or another or were still undecided, said Steve Raabe, the president of OpinionWorks, the Annapolis-based firm that conducted the Sun poll.
“There’s been that shift and there are more of them in play,” he said. “That’s very important to a campaign.”
A Washington Post poll released yesterday found that 42 percent of black voters in Maryland support the measure and 53 percent oppose it. The poll found a majority of likely voters favored the measure, 52 percent to 43 percent.
Nationally, polls show increasing support for same-sex marriage since it rose to the political fore less than a decade ago, after the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court ruled that restricting marriage to heterosexuals violated gay couples’ rights.
In Maryland, an attempt to authorize gay marriages failed in the legislature in 2011, in part because of opposition among black churches. It passed this year after lawmakers added protections for religious organizations.
Sheridan Todd Yeary, the senior pastor of Douglas Memorial Community Church in Baltimore, said the safeguards for churches sealed his support. He said he has yet to decide whether he would perform such marriages.
“We can embrace equal protection for every citizen of the United States and it doesn’t force anyone to violate their faith,” he said. “Even though I may not agree on questions of lifestyle, at the end of the day, everybody may not agree with me. Everybody should be able to participate in that larger body politic.”
Maryland Delegate Emmett Burns, a Baltimore County Democrat who opposes gay marriage, said Bond and other civil rights leaders are out of step with the black community.
“These quasi-leaders who claim they are speaking for us -- they aren’t speaking for us,” he said. “The African-American community is solid on this.”
On a recent Sunday, parishioners expressed divided opinions as they came out of the Southern Baptist Church in east Baltimore, where Hickman, who appears in an ad supporting same- sex marriage, preaches.
Willis Squire, 68, a retiree from Bethlehem Steel Corp., said he differs with his preacher.
“I don’t believe in that,” he said. “God said marriage is between a man and a woman.”
Duane Roberts, a 50 year-old truck driver, and his wife Jackie, 46, a nurse, said they planned to vote in favor.
“Every individual has the right to do as they believe as long as it doesn’t hurt anybody else,” said Jackie Roberts.
Down the road at the National Great Blacks In Wax Museum, Wilson, the deputy director, said he’s still not quite sure which way he’ll vote, though he’s leaning in favor.
“People are beginning to understand that you need to make a separation between what you believe and what the law says,” he said. “This whole nation was founded on tolerance.”
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