CHICAGO – The Rev. James Meeks took to the pulpit of the enormous House of Hope at Salem Baptist Church of Chicago and exhorted his congregation to make its voice heard by lawmakers who will vote on whether to allow gay marriage in Illinois.
“We’re living in a time where, here in our own state … they are about to make the law of the land that a man can marry a man and a woman can marry a woman. I think it’s time for the church to wake up,” said Meeks, a former state senator, on a recent Sunday.
During Illinois’ lengthy and divisive debate on same-sex marriage, perhaps no group of lawmakers has been singled out for more intensive lobbying than African-American state representatives.
With the measure a dozen votes or less shy of the 60 required for final approval, advocates on either side of the issue consider the 20 black House members as key swing votes in the spring session.
The traditionally liberal black caucus, however, has not uniformly lined up in favor of gay marriage, even as home-state President Barack Obama switched course and backed it. Only one of the 14 House co-sponsors is black.
Some African-American lawmakers are uncomfortable with characterizations of gay rights as the latest front in the civil rights movement.
Others fear political repercussions, saying ministers opposed to same-sex marriage have warned legislators who vote for it to never come back to their churches, where politicians traditionally campaign on the final Sundays before an election.
“To be honest with you, it’s a little disheartening,” said Democratic state Rep. Will Davis, a black caucus member who has not made up his mind as he works out whether gay marriage is a moral or public policy issue.
“There are so many large-scale issues important to the black community, but you’ve never heard from them,” Davis said of the churches opposed to gay marriage. “This doesn’t create jobs. It doesn’t create opportunities and, for the most part, they are silent on helping African-Americans getting job opportunities in this state. They are silent on the increasing prison population.”
The bill contains a provision stating that religious institutions that oppose same-sex marriage could not be forced to perform ceremonies for same-sex couples, but religious leaders opposed to the measure argue that allowing such unions is against Bible-based morals.
Meeks, a once-considerable political presence whose religious role still carries significant influence, was tapped as the voice for thousands of automated calls into African-American homes warning that “our family structure as we know it is in serious jeopardy” if same-sex marriage is legalized.
In mid-March, the African-American Clergy Coalition formed an independent-expenditure political action committee with $3,000 from supportive ministers.
“When I saw that the lawmakers were excited about passing legislation about same-sex marriage, it’s a slap in the face of the Bible,” said the PAC’s chairman, Lance Davis, bishop of New Zion Christian Fellowship Covenant Church in Dolton. “I didn’t see that kind of enthusiasm about stopping children from killing children in the streets.”
The Rev. Davis said the same-sex marriage issue “has really galvanized us” and wants the PAC to address other issues of concern to the black community, rather than support or oppose political candidates.
But advocates for same-sex marriage also have sought help from the pulpit. They’ve sent lawmakers letters of support from more than 300 faith leaders across the state that, in the words of one clergyman, seek to differentiate a religious rite from a civil right.
The letters and other more direct lobbying are “done to give a comfort level to legislators that they’ll be doing the right thing and to give them some protection and some language to understand the issue and to use with their constituents and own faith leaders,” said one same-sex marriage supporter who was not authorized to discuss lobbying tactics.
On Thursday, a group of black clergy will hold a news conference in Chicago to urge passage of the gay marriage bill in the Illinois House, the last hurdle given that Democratic Gov. Pat Quinn has said he will sign the measure into law.
The Rev. L. Bernard Jakes of West Point Missionary Baptist Church in Chicago contended that same-sex couples, many of them active in the African-American church, are being denied a basic right.
“Many of the same-gendered loving couples love Jesus as much as I, and they believe in Scripture with the same fervor by which I believe,” Jakes noted in a statement to lawmakers.
“Their only legal lot in life is they are prevented from sharing in a life-long legal commitment with their partner — many of double-digit years. This is what makes it a matter of civil rights,” he wrote.
The Chicago Urban League also has waded into the controversy.
“Now is the time to stand up for equality for all Illinois citizens,” Andrea Zopp, the group’s president and CEO, wrote in an email to same-sex marriage supporters. “That’s what we at the Chicago Urban League have been doing for nearly 100 years — standing up for equality for African-Americans and all who experience discrimination.”
Democratic state Rep. Christian Mitchell is the lone African-American co-sponsor of the same-sex marriage bill. The freshman lawmaker acknowledged his support was not “easy” but said that “pretty quickly it struck me as the right thing to do.”
“Anything that diminishes a fellow citizen diminishes me,” Mitchell said. “Discrimination is wrong, no matter who it targets. Any time a group is being oppressed is wrong.”
Mitchell said complaints that legalizing same-sex marriage attacks the family are “absolutely ridiculous” when families already are under siege due to poverty, low-paying jobs and the lack of affordable child care and quality education — as well as divorce among opposite-sex couples.
But there is no uniformity on the issue among the African-American lawmakers. In February, state Rep. Eddie Lee Jackson Sr., was the lone Democrat to vote against advancing the same-sex marriage bill out of the powerful House Executive Committee.
Jackson and other black lawmakers opposed to the measure did not return calls for comment.
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Democratic state Rep. Ken Dunkin, who heads the House side of the black caucus, acknowledged there is heavy pressure on African-American lawmakers from preachers to oppose the same-sex marriage bill, and there is a division among black lawmakers on the issue.
“A lot of them still say that they can’t vote” for gay marriage, said Dunkin, who supports the bill.
Some lawmakers in the black caucus don’t like the use of the term “civil right” to try to link the struggle of African-Americans to that of gays and lesbians.
“For me, and I know some wouldn’t agree, I do have trouble equating it to a civil right,” said Rep. Davis, the lawmaker who is undecided.
“When I think about the path of the African-American in this country — and people who didn’t choose to come to this country — to me, sexual preference is a choice. Some would argue genetics. In my opinion, it’s still a choice,” Davis said.
Democratic state Rep. Greg Harris, the House sponsor of the same-sex marriage bill, said the divisions on the issue, including among churches, is “emblematic of the state at large.”
“Everyone knows the trajectory that this issue is going in,” said Harris, a who is gay. “I think the good thing is, as people make arguments pro and con whether through lobbying or the media, public opinion is breaking. … Let’s have the discussion and talk about pros and cons and debunk the myths, and people will make the decision.”
(Tribune reporter Ray Long contributed to this story from Springfield, Ill.)
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