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Maryland Marriage Equality Vote Brings Together LGBT, Black Civil Rights Groups

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Amy Lewis, left, and Tricia Benson celebrate with their son, Will Lewis-Benson, 3, in the Maryland State House after the House of Delegates passed a gay marriage bill in Annapolis, Md., on Feb. 17. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky)
Amy Lewis, left, and Tricia Benson celebrate with their son, Will Lewis-Benson, 3, in the Maryland State House after the House of Delegates passed a gay marriage bill in Annapolis, Md., on Feb. 17. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky)

Reverend Donte Hickman believes that marriage is a union between one man and one woman, and he will not marry same-sex couples at his church in Baltimore. Nonetheless, for months, he has been advocating in favor of the Civil Marriage Protection Act, which allows gays and lesbian couples to get a civil marriage license from a Maryland courthouse. At a Friday press conference, Hickman plans to join forces with an influential group of African-American clergy to show their support for same-sex marriage in the state, the latest example of a growing solidarity between black and gay civil rights groups.

This November, Maryland voters will decide in a ballot referendum whether to keep gay civil marriage legal in the state, and advocates say that successful passage will depend largely on African American voters, who make up nearly a third of the state's population and who have historically been opposed to same-sex marriage.

Since President Obama said he personally supported same-sex marriage last May, the NAACP also voted to endorse it, and other prominent African American leaders have followed. But there are still African American clergy who are strongly opposed, and some have even said they would not vote for Obama because of his personal support for gay marriage. For this group of colleagues, Hickman has a message: "It's not about the personal."

Hickman began advocating for the Civil Marriage Protection Act after working with the governor of Maryland last fall to insure that the language of the law would not require any religious institutions to perform same-sex marriages if they did not believe in them. Once he felt confident that he would not have to perform a ceremony that went against his beliefs, he testified in favor of the legislation. "What I practice in the church does not have to be practiced by the state," Hickman told The Huffington Post. "We live in a democracy not a theocracy and I think it sets a very dangerous precedent when any religious organization can establish and legislate laws by faith tradition."

In March, lawmakers in Maryland voted to pass the Civil Marriage Protection Act, legalizing same-sex marriage. But since then, opponents collected enough signatures to put the issue on the November ballot, in an effort to repeal the law. If a majority of voters in the state choose to support the Act, their state will be the first to legalize same-sex marriage by popular vote.

On Friday, a number of African American clergy from around the country, including Rev. Al Sharpton, hope to "dispel the myth that all African American pastors are fundamentally opposed to the idea of marriage equality," as Reverend Delman Coates, the leader of an 8,000-member Baptist church in Clinton, Md., put it.

Until recently, polls long suggested that the majority of black voters did not support legalizing same-sex marriage, and few major civil rights groups offered support. In 2008, when California voters banned same-sex marriage by approving Proposition 8, a majority of black voters also supported the measure. Last spring, an internal memo was leaked that revealed a secret strategy from the nation's leading group in fighting same-sex marriage to exploit this opposition. The memo, from the National Organization for Marriage, described a strategy to defeat marriage equality campaigns by "fanning the hostility" between blacks and gays.

But recent polls have shown growing support for same-sex marriage among all Americans -- black or white. In August, a poll showed African Americans evenly divided in opposition and support, a shift from last March when the majority were opposed. On Friday, the African American clergy who will gather hope to tip the scales further by pressing the point that this legislation will not impinge on religious freedom. They aim to reinforce the idea -- prevalent among gay rights activists -- that marriage is a fundamental civil right.

"This issue has been mired in a theological argument between conservative Christians and liberal Christians debating bible verses," Coates continued. "My view is that it really shouldn't matter whether one is for or against same sex marriage as a religious right. That's not the question. The question is whether citizens of this country deserve to be treated equally under the law."

Those clergy who still oppose the legislation disagree with Coates on what the question really is. "I think that the legislation is in opposition to my basic biblical beliefs that marriage is between a man and a woman," said Reverend Jamal Harrison Bryant, pastor of the Empowerment Temple, who added that he was "working tirelessly for it to be defeated."

Bryant views pastors like Hickman as "hypocrites," he said. "The role of the preacher is to defend the bible and to advance it," he continued.

Also on Friday, the Coalition of African-American Pastors, a group with strong ties to the National Organization for Marriage and other right-wing groups that have been urging voters to withdraw support from President Obama because of his stance on gay marriage, will hold a press conference on Maryland's marriage law.

"We have assembled a group of black leaders in the church and in public service to show that we do not accept the President's support of same-sex marriage," said the Reverend William Owens, president of CAAP, in a press release. "During our tour of states precious to President Obama, we will warn Democrat voters: do not let this President leave out black Christians, do not let him take our votes for granted."

No matter how strong his opposition to same-sex marriage, Bryant said he still spends roughly 95 percent of his energy working to elect President Obama, despite the president's views on marriage. "I was shocked and amazed as well as disappointed," he said, of Obama's announcement on marriage. "But when I look at the backdrop of all that he has accomplished and done, not for one moment did I waver."

UPDATE: 9/25 -- After publication, a spokesperson for Bryant told HuffPost that the pastor's political activities in the current cycle are not on behalf of President Obama, but are more generally focused on voter
registration and voter education.

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