Black clergy who oppose same-sex unions take issue when the fight for legalization is compared to the civil rights movement
By Jay Tokasz
NEWS STAFF REPORTER
Black clergy have long opposed the march toward legal same-sex marriages. Now, they’re also challenging the growing efforts of gay-marriage supporters to frame the issue as a civil rights cause.
The Rev. William Gillison, pastor of Mount Olive Baptist Church, a large African-American congregation on East Delevan Avenue, said he is insulted by the comparison.
“We know what we have gone through as an ethnic group. We feel the terminology, the definition itself, has really been hijacked,” he said. “Unfortunately, it’s just another ploy to garner more support from people who may not understand what the civil rights struggle was all about.”
Bishop Michael A. Badger, pastor of Bethesda World Harvest International Church on Main Street, said that he doesn’t doubt there is discrimination against gay people but that it is hardly on the order of what African-Americans have encountered and still face.
“As an African-American, I don’t have a choice in the color of my skin. I have a choice in whether I’m abstinent or not,” Badger said. “I don’t think you can compare the two.”
Pastor Jeffery Bowens, who leads Love Alive Christian Fellowship on Genesee Street, also disagrees with the comparison.
“It doesn’t add up to me,” Bowens said. “It’s really attempting to get empathy more than anything else.”
In April, Gov. David A. Paterson, who is black, compared the fight to eliminate slavery in the 1800s to the current effort to legalize gay marriage. He later chided religious leaders for not having spoken out against discrimination of gays.
Most black pastors, here and elsewhere, remain overwhelmingly opposed to gay marriage on religious grounds and objected to Paterson’s characterizations.
African-Americans were the only ethnic group in both polls to say they did not approve of gay marriage, by a margin of 57 percent to 35 percent in the Quinnipiac survey and by 49 percent to 44 percent in the Siena study.
Black ministers — along with the state’s Catholic bishops — remain among the most vehement opponents of the measure.
“My opposition to this is very simple. It’s not my biblical understanding of what marriage is,” Gillison said. “We believe when you’re talking marriage, it’s between a man and a woman. We don’t even believe marriage is man’s idea. It’s God’s idea. This has always been for us an issue that is one in the spiritual realm, not the political realm.”
The Catholic bishops note that their stance is “not simply a matter of theology, and religious values are not the sole source of opposition to this plan.”
Encouraging marriage between a man and woman, the bishops said in a statement, serves the state’s interests because children raised in homes with a mother and father are more likely to become good citizens, creating wealth, stability and security for society.
Marriage between one man and one woman historically “has made our society strong,” added Bowens, who expressed concern about whether approval of gay marriage would open the door for practices such as bigamy or polygamy.
“Is it going to cause society to deteriorate?” he said. “Where do we end up if we keep discarding the things that have kept us together? . . . It’s confusing. It’s disorienting.”
Some local black clergy said they oppose same-sex marriage but they were uncomfortable elaborating because they didn’t want to upset gay and lesbian members of their churches. They said they consider any sexual activity outside of traditional marriage between a man and woman to be sinful. But they also did not want to dwell on negative behavior or judge parishioners who are gay, they said.
And he is less concerned about the impact of the marriage legislation.
“It’s going to come to a vote, and at the end of the day, it doesn’t affect the church at all,” he said. “There’s no mandate that the church has to perform one of these weddings, and they won’t.”