(RNS) Since the Rev. William Owens launched his national campaign in May calling on African-Americans to withdraw their support of President Obama because of his stance on gay marriage, he has claimed the backing of 3,700 black clergy and touted his organization as predominantly Democratic.
But Owens and his group, the Coalition of African-American Pastors, are drawing criticism from black leaders and the political left who note Owens' long-standing ties with GOP politicians. They charge CAAP misrepresents itself as a nonpartisan grass-roots organization when it is actually backed financially by right-leaning conservative groups.
"He is the poster person of conservative evangelicals ... who are trying to use this as an emotional wedge issue to divide the black community," said the Rev. Amos Brown, pastor of the Third Baptist Church in San Francisco and a protege of the civil rights leader Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.
Owens has become an outspoken critic of Obama since the president announced in May that he was switching his position on gay marriage. The pastor has railed against Obama in cable news network interviews and has held a series of news conferences warning that Obama is in danger of losing black voters' support.
He has also vowed to collect 100,000 churchgoers' signatures in support of "traditional" marriage and plans to hold an Aug. 16 rally in Memphis, his hometown, to focus attention on the issue. "We will see that the black community is informed that the president is taking them for granted while pandering to the gay community," he said last week.
The coalition describes itself on its website as a "nonpartisan group of truthfully mostly Democrats." But interviews and a review of tax documents reveal deep connections with the right:
- Owens was appointed this year as the African-American liaison for the National Organization for Marriage (NOM), a Washington-based group opposed to same-sex marriage that has endorsed Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney.
- Frank Cannon, head of the American Principles Project, a group opposed to same-sex marriage, confirms his group's political action fund is paying public relations firm Shirley & Banister to assist CAAP's communications strategy.
- CAAP received loans totaling26,000 in 2004 from the conservative Family Research Council, American Family Association and Mississippi Tea Party activist Ed Holliday, according to its IRS filings.
Owens, who didn't respond to requests for comment, endorsed 2008 GOP presidential contender Mike Huckabee and Ohio GOP gubernatorial candidate Ken Blackwell.
"CAAP bears all the hallmarks of a front group," said Michael Keegan of the liberal People for the American Way. "Owens presents himself and his group as non-partisan or, if anything, leaning in the direction of the Democrats. That makes him more useful to religious-right groups and easier to book on cable news."
NOM set out to find African-American spokespeople to develop "a media campaign around their objection to gay marriage as a civil right" and "provoke the gay marriage base into ... denouncing these spokesmen and women as bigots," according to internal documents unveiled earlier this year in a Maine lawsuit.
Maggie Gallagher, co-founder of NOM, called the language in the internal documents "regrettable" but denied that the group's alliance with Owens reflects a wedge strategy. "The belief that this is somehow a front group, I think, is unfair to the majority of black pastors that have appeared with Rev. Owens."
Polls show black voters are deeply divided on gay marriage. Still, "this idea that there is going to be black voters coming out against a candidate or coalescing for a candidate on one issue is simply not true," said the Rev. William Barber, president of the North Carolina chapter of the NAACP.
(Aamer Madhani writes for USA Today. Contributing: Ray Locker.)