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Surveys show that African-Americans are the most liberal group on social justice, but they are the most conservative on one issue: gay rights. Two out of three African-Americans oppose same-sex marriage. In California, they voted overwhelmingly in favor of a ban. And in Washington, D.C., leaders of black churches were the most vocal opponents of a bill to recognize same-sex marriages performed in other states.

NPR's Barbara Bradley Hagerty talked with two pastors about the religious arguments for and against gay marriage.

BARBARA BRADLEY HAGERTY: Every Monday, a few dozen African-American ministers meet to pray, eat and brainstorm about the big issues facing their churches. These days, one item looms large.

Reverend PATRICK WALKER (Pastor, New Macedonia Baptist Church): Anybody in here for same-sex marriage? Okay.

(Soundbite of laughter)

HAGERTY: Not in this crowd. That was Patrick Walker, who pastors New Macedonia Baptist Church, a fast-growing 2100-member church in southeast Washington. He also heads the task force for black ministers fighting same-sex marriage in the city. The fight is nearly over, he tells his colleagues, and it looks as if they've lost.

Rev. WALKER: Barring any action from the Congress, barring any action from the courts, on July 6th, the District of Columbia will recognize those same-sex marriages.

HAGERTY: Walker believes that will be a tragedy and an affront to God.

Rev. WALKER: I believe the Bible is absolutely clear: God performed the first marriage when he sanctioned Adam and Eve.

HAGERTY: The pastor cites Sodom and Gomorrah and passages calling homosexual acts an abomination. Nowhere, he says, does God sanction homosexual marriage.

Rev. WALKER: When you look at the way God designed the male and the female, be fruitful and multiply was the command. I'm sorry, the homosexual cannot be fruitful and multiply.

HAGERTY: Walker reads the Bible literally. And he sees in those pages a blueprint for a healthy family. Gay marriage, he says, will be another blow to an institution that is already in trouble.

Rev. WALKER: When we are looking at the disproportionate number of single women in our churches and the decline of the African-American males, yes, I believe that it takes away from the family.

Reverend DENNIS WILEY (Pastor, Covenant Baptist Church): But how do we know whether or not gay marriage will add to the problem or add to the solution unless it happens?

HAGERTY: That's Dennis Wiley, who co-pastors the 500-member Covenant Baptist Church with his wife Christine. On a tour of his airy church in a nearby neighborhood, he shows me the new stained glass windows, each with a scene: liberation, empowerment.

Rev. WILEY: And one of the window themes also is inclusiveness, and it focuses on gender inclusiveness. But the message, of course, goes beyond that.

HAGERTY: Wiley and his wife have already held two same-sex blessings that caused most of their congregation to leave. But since then, they've attracted new members who were looking for a gay-friendly black church. He believes the African-American church opposes homosexuality because it's trying to erase the myth of the hypersexual African-American slave by conforming to white society.

Rev. WILEY: You don't want to call a lot of attention to yourself. You don't want to engage in behavior that's considered deviant or aberrant, et cetera. So, certainly, homosexuality would be something that was considered to be out of the question.

HAGERTY: Wiley acknowledges that there are a handful of biblical passages condemning homosexuality. But he says blacks don't take the Bible literally when it comes to, say, racial issues.

Rev. WILEY: The Bible says, slaves, be obedient to your masters, et cetera. Well, we don't hear black people saying, okay, now, we've got to stick with that. But yet, when it comes to the issue of homosexuality, then people are running to the Bible.

HAGERTY: For Wiley, gay rights is simply the next step in the Civil Rights Movement. Like blacks, he says, homosexuals did not choose this life.

Rev. WILEY: This was not something that they woke up one day and said, I think I'll be a homosexual today. These are people who, no matter how hard they might try, this is what their identity is.

Rev. WALKER: To even give compassion is just ludicrous.

HAGERTY: Reverend Patrick Walker bristles at equating homosexuality with race.

Rev. WALKER: When I talk to most people of African descent, many of them are absolutely appalled by any comparison to the Civil Rights Movement simply because we cannot take off our blackness.

HAGERTY: Gay men and lesbians, he says, never sat at the back of the bus or suffered Jim Crow laws. Homosexuals choose to be gay, he says, a lifestyle that is outside of God's plan and therefore, a sin.

It's hard to imagine how Reverends Walker and Wiley will meet halfway on this issue, so they're both waiting. Dennis Wiley believes that eventually gay marriage will become just as accepted as interracial marriage is today. Patrick Walker also believes time is on his side, that the time-tested, literal word of God will prevail in the end.

Barbara Bradley Hagerty, NPR News.

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