The Dialogue Around Gay Marriage In Black Churches

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Bishop Harry Jackson, senior pastor, Hope Christian Church
Reverend Delman Coates, senior pastor, Mt. Ennon Baptist Church

A bill that could legalize same-sex marriage has cleared the Maryland House and is expected to pass in the Senate. A majority of black clergy in the state argue that same-sex marriage conflicts with the teachings of the Bible, but some pastors have spoken out in support of the bill.


This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington. This week, the Maryland Legislature is expected to finalize approval of a bill to legalize same-sex marriage with a big push from Governor Martin O'Malley. If opponents can gather enough signatures after he signs it, the measure will go to a referendum in November.

As in other states, some of the most vocal opponents are African-American ministers. Many black preachers deplore gay marriage as a violation of scripture and worry about the potential effects on members of their congregations.

A smaller number support the idea, in part to open a difficult conversation about homosexuality in the black community. We want to hear from African-Americans in our audience today. Do you turn to your church for guidance on this issue? Give us a call, 800-989-8255. Email is You can also join the conversation on our website. That's at Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Later in the program, TALK OF THE NATION's favorite movie buff Murray Horwitz joins us. Two of this year's best picture nominees are movies about the movies. So email us: What's your nominee for all-time best Hollywood-on-Hollywood picture? The email address again is

But first, Bishop Harry Jackson joins us here in Studio 3A. He's senior pastor of Hope Christian Church in Beltsville, Maryland, and founder and chairman of the High Impact Leadership Coalition. Nice to have you back on the program.

BISHOP HARRY JACKSON: Thank you, sir, good to be with you.

CONAN: I know you've been active in opposition to this bill. If it passes, will you be among those to help gather signatures to put it on the ballot?

JACKSON: I certainly will. Many, many people are gathered against it, over 3,000 religious organizations representing over three-and-a-half million voters are right in line now to stand against this measure.

CONAN: And why is it that particularly the black community seems to be opposed to it?

JACKSON: Well, I think we are in a crisis in terms of the definition of marriage. And if we look at the marital breakdowns, children born out of wedlock, the institution of marriage on the main is on life support. Given that measure, we don't want to do this huge social experiment that may actually take the very last heart's beat out of this institution that is so vital to the perpetuity or carrying on our culture, our people and our work.

CONAN: As I'm sure you know, there are places like Massachusetts where gay marriage has been legalized for some time now, and the sky has yet to fall.


JACKSON: That's well-said. I think there are a lot of unintended consequences. There are parents who wanted to opt their kids out of school in Massachusetts at certain stages. They didn't want to have certain books read, "Heather has Two Mommies," et cetera. Some folks have even been expelled from the building by principals, challenged by the police.

So the ability to opt out of renewed education is not an option in many places. So if you change marriage, you change the definition of family. Change a definition of a family, of necessity it has implications with education. And I'm concerned not about the folks, what they're doing in their bedrooms, et cetera, I'm concerned more about what happens to those young kids next and how these fundamental institutions may be marred, in my view irreversibly.

CONAN: As you've noted, the institution of marriage, fewer and fewer people afford themselves of that institution, and in the black community in particular. Why would you then say these people who want to get married should not be allowed to?

JACKSON: Well, I wouldn't call this marriage by definition. Historic definition of marriage is a union between a man and a woman. Procreation is at the very heart of what we are called to do. It's the first institution ordained by God. And also, I believe that as we go down this road, we have not had enough history to see what might be, in my view, unintended consequences to this particular act.

So why this social experiment now? Why the pressure from a Governor O'Malley at this hour? Last year, we were able to block it successfully. This year, a lot of arm-twisting, pressures, measures I won't want to go into that I think are a little bit unethical politically, calls from Hillary and Bill Clinton last year, all kinds of things have gone on in this state just to move this thing down the road.

There are other issues we could be concerned about. Look at the economy. Look at people in education, Baltimore city, Prince George's County. We've got all kinds of issues.

CONAN: I don't deny that there are all kinds of issues in the state of Maryland.

JACKSON: Yes, sir.

CONAN: As you know, however, gay couples say they suffer discrimination. They are - pointed out they also suffer violence, and they wonder why a community that is so passionate about the rights that they fought for so hard for so long should deny them rights, too.

JACKSON: Well, I'm a resident of D.C. My church is in Maryland. I want to make that clear. We've fought against this thing in D.C., as well. I think the real issue is that it's the measure of what I'm going to call injustice. Recently in D.C., there is a whole change in divorce that has to happen. No longer is there a six-month requirement for both parties to be residents here. Now there's going to be an exception that all the gay people that got married want to get divorced really quickly.

CONAN: That's an overstatement, all the people.

JACKSON: Well, no, no, no, not all the people, forgive me. I didn't mean to say that - there are a lot of folk - and I thank you for the correction - but I think that what we're dealing with is we're tampering with these things as though this is some kind of Tinker Toy, and oh, we're overcommitted here, we'll dial it back a little bit there, and I think that's fundamentally unfair.

I think the people should have a vote on this. So I believe you'll see a lot of signatures and a referendum, and I believe that as it was in 31 times out to vote on this, there will be yet another victory should the opportunity to vote come to the people of Maryland.

CONAN: It would be interesting, there could be referenda on gay marriage not just in Maryland this year. There probably will be in Washington state, as well, Perhaps in New Jersey, and we know it's going to be on the ballot in Minnesota. So it's going to be a very interesting year.

JACKSON: But it's going to be interesting for a couple other reasons, and that is at the Supreme Court level, we all know it's headed that way. And if there's no pushback from Maryland and others, the Supreme Court is going to look and say: Hmm, have things really changed? How vociferous is the opposition at this time?

CONAN: Well, they might also look at opinion polls and say it looks like most people are now in favor.

JACKSON: Exactly. So it's important, I think, to both sides that at this particular time, folks will step up, let their voices be heard so democracy in action can really occur.

CONAN: We're talking with Bishop Harry Jackson, senior pastor of Hope Christian Church in Beltsville, Maryland. And we'd like to hear from our African-American members of our audience. Do you turn to your church for guidance on the gay marriage issue? 800-989-8255. Email us, And we'll start with Jay(ph), and Jay's on the line with us from Jacksonville in Florida.

JAY: Good afternoon.


JAY: First, I want to say that my church always stresses that love is the (technical difficulty), somebody is seeking to have a relationship that's based on love and mutual respect...

CONAN: Jay, did you just hit a button? We're having a hard time hearing you.

JAY: No, can you hear me now?

CONAN: Yeah, that's a little bit better, thanks.

JAY: OK. My church stresses love, that if somebody wants to have a committed, loving relationship with another person that it's not for us to judge the nature of their love or what's in their heart. I also want to add that the real threat to the black family is not allowing gay marriage, it's forcing people who are homosexual into the closet because that leads to families being broken up, that leads to children being beaten and abused. That leads to people leaving their family because they aren't being accepted because it's at odds with their faith.

So I see all of that as being much more dangerous than somebody who wants to get married, have a monogamous relationship and raise children.

CONAN: Bishop Jackson?

JACKSON: Well, it's hard to gauge the degree of sin, if you will. I simply would say I agree with the loving idea that we should be for people living their lives any way they want to live their lives. But I think we're dealing with a generational issue now of what will America become. What will Jacksonville and Maryland become in the days ahead?

And so we need to have some thoughtful, careful look at this thing. And I understand the caller's questions and concerns. I simply disagree with the fact that this measure legally is necessary. You've already got civil unions here in Maryland and many other places. It seems like we don't need to take this step, which so radically redefines everything.

CONAN: Just to follow up on Jay's second point: Do you have members of your congregation who are homosexual or lesbian or bisexual? And if so, what do you tell them?

JACKSON: Well, I don't have any members at this present time that are currently gays or lesbians. I've had a lot of people over the years who have some out of - I'm sorry - come out of that particular lifestyle. But our extended families need to have compassion and care for people who may disagree with how folk live their lives.

But I believe our folks are kindhearted enough not to judgmentally exit them from family affairs or some kind of persecutive kind of measures. This is about education, the next-generation children, what can - family configurations will look like. This is about what in the year 2050 America will look like. And I don't think it's about hate. I think it's about whether we want intentional design that is in accordance with whose view of morality.

CONAN: Jay - I'm sorry, I just want to give Jay a chance to come back.

JAY: Well, I think that I guess you raise a question of morality, and as I have studied this, I work in diversity and issues of equality and whatnot that that's always kind of way to make homosexuals, saying that somehow they are less moral. I guess...

JACKSON: No, that wasn't the intent. There is a specific code in our tradition of faith. That's all I'm saying. I'm not trying to put anybody down. I'm just saying we have a right to believe the way we believe, especially if nobody is targeting or wanting to hurt folks of another lifestyle, choice or practice.

JAY: OK, I guess I'll just kind of finish up by saying is that faith is a cornerstone in our community, just as it is in many others. And that the problem becomes when somebody's faith and their lifestyle are at odds, that you said it's kind of hard to gauge degrees of sin. I believe it says that all sin is equal in the eyes of the lord. So the question is: Would you rather have somebody who is living a lie so that they can continue to operate in their faith or somebody who is being true and honest to what their heart and their mind and their spirit is telling them?

CONAN: And I don't mean to cut you off, Jay, but we just have a few seconds left.

JACKSON: Well, I disagree that all sin is equal, but I will say this to you: I love the way that you are reaching for fairness and equality, and I believe that others are doing the same thing. They simply have a different measure by which they evaluate the landscape.

CONAN: Jay, thanks very much for the phone call, we appreciate it. And Bishop Jackson, thanks very much for your time today.

JACKSON: Thank you so much. Pleasure to be with you.

CONAN: Bishop Harry Jackson, senior pastor of Hope Christian Church in Beltsville, Maryland, joined us here in Studio 3A. We're talking about gay marriage and the black church. Stay with us. I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.


CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan. As you just heard from Bishop Harry Jackson, who just joined us, black clergy in Maryland and around the country have what they contend are solid reasons to oppose gay marriage, reasons based in scripture and beliefs about the structure of African-American families.

Not all black pastors agree. We'll hear from one in just a moment. We also want to hear from our African-American listeners. Do you look to your church leadership for guidance on this issue? 800-989-8255. Email us, You can also join the conversation on our website. That's at Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Joining us now by phone from Phoenix is Reverend Delman Coates, senior pastor of Mount Ennon Baptist Church in Clinton, Maryland. Thanks very much for joining us today.

REVEREND DELMAN COATES: Thank you, Neal. That's Mount Ennon Baptist Church.

CONAN: Oh, forgive me. Last year, a bill to legalize same-sex marriage failed in the Maryland House, did not get to a vote. Now that it's passed, do you think you're on the cusp of achieving a victory here?

COATES: Well, I think so, but I think that victory is much broader than the specific piece of legislation. I've been able to support the Civil Marriage Protection Act because I believe that it's critically important in a pluralistic democracy that we don't use theology as a basis for public policy.

And so I believe - while there are well-intentioned people on all sides of this question, I think that it's a dangerous public-policy precedent to use one's subjective and personal theology as a basis for determining whether all citizens, and in this instance the residents of the state of Maryland, deserve the same basic civil liberties.

CONAN: Is your congregation unanimously in support?

COATES: Well, I don't think any congregation is unanimous on any issue. No, I've heard from a percentage of our members who, you know, who are opposed to this measure. But I would say that the overwhelming majority of our membership, certainly well in excess of 90 percent, 95 percent of those that I've heard from, applaud the stance that I've taken, that the question as a matter of public policy should not be what does our local church believe or affirm as it relates to marriage, but simply do our neighbors deserve the same basic civil liberties. And so they overwhelming understand that distinction.

CONAN: Those who advocate rights for gays and lesbians, transexuals and people who are bi, also argue that opinions begin to change when people that you love, you know are gay or lesbian or bisexual or transgender, that when your cousin or your uncle or your aunt or your teacher you learn is gay, then all of the sudden your opinions begin to change.

COATES: That's true. I mean, I do think that it's important that we not - it's easy to demonize people that you don't know. And I do believe that it's important for people of faith to have conversation and dialogue with, you know, a host of people whose choices and decisions they may not understand. So dialogue is critically important across ideological perspectives, racial lines, theological lines. It's very important to have, you know, ecumenical conversation, and I think that's to be encouraged.

But again, for me, you know, what I want to emphasize is that my support for this legislation is that it provides two things. It protects local faith institutions to define marriage, religious marriage in the way that they desire. So it protects, you know, religious freedom, and it protects individual clergy, yet at the same time extending equal rights and civil liberties to all of the residents of our state. And so were it not for those religious protections, then I wouldn't have been able to support it.

But I think the legislation has been crafted in a way that allows people to affirm whatever it is that they desire to affirm as a matter of their own faith and theology and yet, you know, provides for equal rights for others. Nothing is imposed on anyone.

CONAN: Just to clarify what you're saying, no church would be required, under state law, to marry people if they didn't agree to.

COATES: Absolutely, absolutely. And there are no repercussions that can be held against any clergyperson if they taught something that was different, they taught that, you know, marriage was between a man and a woman, and no repercussions against the institution or individual clergy. And I think the balance, the bill does a great balance protecting religious institution and religious freedom yet providing civil liberties, as well.

CONAN: Does it also afford the opportunity, and as Bishop Jackson suggested, it's very likely this is going to be on the ballot as a referendum item in November, but does it also afford the opportunity to open a dialogue in the African-American community where sometimes conversations about homosexuality are not always welcome?

COATES: There's no question that there's going to be ongoing dialogue about this topic. I see it already in the responses that I've received from colleagues of mine on both sides of this question. And I think that that dialogue is good. I think it's healthy. And as long as it's done constructively and compassion, I think it's good.

It's going to provide a greater opportunity for people in our communities to receive the kind of hope and healing and help that we all need rather than viewing our churches and religious institutions as a place for - of condemnation and judgment.

I would like to say something about the referendum notion, if I could.

CONAN: Sure.

COATES: I believe that issues of human rights and constitutionality should not be submitted to - we should not base them on public consensus. If slavery had been submitted to referendum, if segregation had been submitted to referendum, then I and many residents of our communities, minorities, wouldn't have many of the opportunities that we have, perhaps.

When it comes to issues of constitutionality, and I believe that's what the federal appeals court said recently as it relates to Prop 8 in California, that when it comes to issues of constitutionality and human rights, these are not issues that should be adjudicated by public consensus.

If it's an issue of recreation, like let's say slots or casinos coming to a particular community or state, I can understand that. But I think that we should be very hesitant about rushing to submitting such an issues to referendum.

CONAN: Let's get a caller in on the conversation. Wanda's(ph) on the line with us from Orlando.

WANDA: Yes, the question was asked: Is the discussion of homosexuality discussed in my church? And I would say yes, it is. And it's understood that God is not pleased with that. That's what the word of God says. And if you are a believer, either you believe the word to be true, or it isn't.

You can't stand one - I mean, you can't stand on the fence. You have to make a decision. Secondly - excuse me - there are homosexual - or people who struggle with that, who do come to the church, but they realize that they must make a decision as to where they stand in that faith.

God has given us all a measure of faith, but we are able to overcome anything if our belief is in Christ. So - and also I want to say the first caller, Jay, said that all sin is equal. Well...

CONAN: I think he said all sinners are equal, but...

WANDA: Homosexuality is the only thing that he says that is an abomination in his eyes.

CONAN: You're quoting from Leviticus then?


CONAN: As - look, I'm the last person to argue scripture, but I was just looking it up earlier today. Leviticus also says that we should not eat fork and that blasphemy should be punished by death. We don't do either of those things.

COATES: Neal, you raise a great point, and I want to thank the caller for the sentiments she expressed. The real question is whether people of faith ought to legislate their belief or whether they should live in their belief. My belief, my view is that we ought to live in our faith, not legislate it because the question becomes whose interpretation of the Bible, whose understanding of scripture, which scripture, which religion is going to be the basis for public policy.

I think this is a very dangerous precedent. I think it's very sincere. I think it's well-intentioned, but I think practically, even within, you know, the Christian community, within the faith community, we want to make sure that we protect the public square from private and subjective religious belief.

If 300 years from now, I believe your prior presenter talked about the future, if 300 years from now Christians were in the minority and not the majority, we want to make sure that their right to practice their faith is protected and preserved by whomever is the majority at that time.

And I believe it is the responsibility of every majority in a democracy to protect the rights and liberties of the minority. And so I - my view, I would slightly differ from your caller. I don't believe that the goal is to legislate our faith. If we're going to do that, if we're going to deny rights to those because they committed some sin, I mean, how far are we going to go with that?

As you mentioned, Neal, are we going to legislate those who, according to Leviticus, eat pork, who eat shellfish?

WANDA: But this is a totally different issue, and what we're talking - and we talk about civil rights. It's amazing to me how the homosexual community has taken on that whole issue as if it means the same as what African-Americans had to go through. They don't. First of all, I look at it as a white liberal thing, that they just - they found another way to push their agenda. And if when a white male or a white female go someplace or whatever, they're not discriminated against.

They're openly accepted, however - yes. They say they come out as a homosexual whatever, while they may face some type of discrimination, but on the whole, they're still accepted. And it is different from being an African-American. And, for me, I don't understand why they would take such a (unintelligible).

COATES: I didn't use the term civil rights. I used the term civil liberties.

CONAN: Yes. But there is resentment, and Wanda articulated it. And we've heard it from other callers on other programs in the past, that the language of civil rights is being applied to a situation where people, like Wanda, say this doesn't apply. It's not the same.

COATES: Well, I think what - I think, yes, I have heard this as well, but what people need to understand, in my opinion, is that the civil rights movement was a subset of a broader ethical and moral fight for human rights. So the civil rights movement that Dr. King and others sought to advance, does not mean that African-Americans have a monopoly on civil liberties. All Americans of all backgrounds are part of the human family. Dr. King situated his movement within a broader - a vision for human rights. And this one movement, the civil rights movement, should in no way be regarded as a way to delimit this fight and the struggle for human rights.

CONAN: Wanda, thanks very much for the phone call. Appreciate it.

COATES: I also would say, if I could, Neal, that gay and lesbians, you know, are in all races. You know, whites are not the only ones who are gay and lesbians. We have gays and lesbians in all of our communities - Asian, African-American, Latino. And so I would - I think that we should have a broader understanding and vision.

CONAN: Nicole from Baltimore emailed, I think, to that point. I grew up in an African-American church in Baltimore. There are a number of not-so-closeted gay individuals within the black church, and many of them hold positions as ministers of music, choir directors, et cetera. It's been quietly condoned and accepted for decades or longer, and the black clergy knows it. I don't think the church leaders speak for a majority of their followers. I truly believe it will take only a little outreach to the black Christian community to change the minds of many more parishioners, if not the clergy.

We're talking about the African-American church and gay marriage. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. And let's get Nick on the line. Nick with us from Wilmington, North Carolina.

NICK: Yes. Thank you so much for taking my call. Your first presenter, one of the things I first wanted to say is I thought it was interesting that the same arguments he was using that we shouldn't experiment with this. What our country is going to be like in 20 years or 15 years or 30 years? Those same arguments that he was using were used against African-Americans, you know, 50-something, 60-something years ago. And so what has happened to our country.

Well, now, we have more families, and we have biracial families, and we have biracial children. And we're just as good a country as we were before. I also find it interesting - and people always slam our current president for this - we are not a Christian nation. Everybody in this country is not Christian. And we do not all believe in the Bible. And even that being said, I find it very interesting that lady will quote a scripture from Leviticus, but then the minute you give another scripture - oh, no, no, no, wait.

This is something different. It's always odd to me how convenient parts of Scripture are used when it's for their benefit. If you're going to accept the whole book, then you accept the whole book, and not just parts of it. I can never get over the fact that people who are not gay or lesbian or bisexual, which I'm not, but like that lady talked about - they do not get discrimination. How do you know? How do you know what kind of discrimination they face? How do you know that my friends in Atlanta, Georgia, were jumped just two weeks ago for holding hands while walking down the street - two gay men?

How does she know that? She is inside her little closed bubble, protecting herself from the Bible with selective scriptures that meet her needs. And I'm using her as a general term for Christians, not picking on that young lady. But these same exact arguments were used by small-minded people against African-Americans with - less than a century ago. And they're using those same type of arguments. And it's just that I live in North Carolina. North Carolina is getting ready to try to pass a bill to go ahead and make it illegal for gays to get married.

We're going to go ahead and make a hate law. Why don't we just go ahead and do that in advance? And it's very, very frustrating. I love the comments the gentleman's making now. We're talking about people's not civil rights, and blacks don't own the civil rights. But why are we so filled with hate? Why do we care? The first gentleman you had said, oh, no one in my congregation is gay. Well, as he was the leader of your congregation, of course, no one is going to admit they're gay.

That was a ridiculous statement. But the same arguments were used years ago against making rights available for blacks and for other minorities, which gay and lesbians are a minority right now, unfortunately. And how can you as a Christian, loving person say that two loving individuals should not be able to do that? And it's not always a moral issue. There's legal issues involved as far as federal rights, tax breaks, Social Security issues. It's not all about religion.

CONAN: I just - Nick, thanks very much. We appreciate the phone call. I wanted to add this email from Marilyn. I'm an African-American Christian who goes to church every Sunday. I do believe homosexuality is a sin, just like lying, overeating, gossiping et cetera. Because of my personal belief, I may not support a same-sex marriage bill. However, it's not my job to judge anybody. I will never treat anyone different because of their sexual orientation, just as I don't want anyone to treat me differently because of my race. And, Reverend Coates, maybe we ought to leave it there.

COATES: That's a sentiment that a lot of people are sharing, and I think your prior caller is really pointing out the irony that the people whose experience in this country know oppression and discrimination are many of whom now are using the language of oppression and discrimination to deny rights for others.

CONAN: Reverend Coates, thanks very much for your time today.

COATES: Thank you.

CONAN: Reverend Delman Coates, the senior pastor of Mount Ennon Baptist Church in Clinton, Maryland. He joined us on the phone from Phoenix, Arizona.

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