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Gentrification, gay marriage, and the gospel

Demographic and cultural changes in the capital mean an uphill battle for traditional marriage advocates

Gentrification, gay marriage, and the gospel

(Associated Press/Photo by Jacquelyn Martin)

WASHINGTON-When the city council in Washington, D.C., voted 12-1 in May to recognize same-sex marriages from other states, Marion Barry, the onetime mayor and scandal factory, was the lone dissenting vote. He predicted a "civil war."

"All hell is going to break loose," he said. "The black community is just adamant against this."

What he and other long-standing black city fathers discovered is that the "adamant" community had eroded underneath them. Demographic changes and waning church influence in politics left socially conservative blacks behind the same line in the sand as some staunch Republicans. On the other side: Mayor Adrian Fenty, the city council, lifelong gay activists, a growing band of liberal ministers, and a young, upwardly mobile work force that comprises an increasing number of residents in the city.

The law recognizing same-sex marriages performed in other states went into effect at the beginning of July. Prior to that, the city's Board of Elections and Ethics rejected a request from a coalition of clergy for a referendum, and a superior court judge dismissed the final appeal for a referendum. All is a prelude to the legalization of gay marriage in the district itself.

"The broader society has moved . . . to a place of tolerance," said Jeffrey Richardson, president of the Gertrude Stein Club, one of the main organizations advocating same-sex marriage in Washington. "I think the District is no different than trends we see nationally."

While a majority of Americans still oppose gay marriage (55% according to recent Pew Research Center data), the country has seen a cascade of approvals of same-sex marriage measures: In just six months Maine, Massachusetts, Connecticut, New Hampshire, and Iowa have legalized gay marriages.

In Washington, as Christian ministers who opposed it assess the fallout, they see two citywide trends that hurt their cause: demographics and church unity. Traditional African-American pastors say gentrification is one root of change. As the black population has shrunk in the city, and the white population has grown, the number of liberal churches in the district has grown, and those that believe homosexuality contradicts Christian teaching have dwindled. Today only 33 percent of Washington residents attend church, according to Gallup, ranking it 39th in the nation among states.

"If we had had this battle five years ago, we would be in a hands-down winning situation," said Bishop Harry Jackson, a Washington resident who has been the face of the opposition to the recognition of same-sex marriage. Jackson, who worked extensively with the campaign for Proposition 8 in California, pastors a church in Beltsville, Md., just outside the district's boundaries.

The city's majority black population has fallen by 10 percent over the last 10 years as property values in the district have risen, pushing blacks to nearby counties in Maryland, removing "our most likely allies," Jackson said.

That's also raised the profile for remaining African-American pastors like Dennis Wiley of Covenant Baptist Church. He is one of over 100 urban pastors in a coalition supporting the recognition of same-sex marriage, and he says his endeavor is to preach "a gospel of inclusion, not exclusion."

"A lot of people will say God made Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve," Wiley said in a June sermon, according to Politics Daily. "If God didn't make Steve, who made Steve? Somebody had to make Steve," is his unorthodox interpretation on church teaching. "Why would God create someone of that orientation and then not allow them to have the same kind of opportunity for love, for relationships, for a healthy life as heterosexuals enjoy?"

One of the few white churches in the city to preach that marriage should be between a man and a woman, according to the biblical teaching, is Capitol Hill Baptist. Under senior pastor Mark Dever, the church has one of the largest member rolls in the city at around 700.

"This is probably the most liberal area for Baptists in the country," said Michael Lawrence, the church's associate pastor. "If the Baptists are liberal here, then you can imagine . . . the whole theological spectrum shifts left."

The city's more orthodox churches haven't displayed the same grassroots unity as those on the other side of the debate. "The white church's heart is with us, but except for a small number of folks, they are timid," said Jackson. "In D.C. you've never had a strong black-white coordination in the church."

Capitol Hill Baptist has not been a part of the black ministers' coalition, but Associate Pastor Lawrence said they would be happy to join-their ministers just haven't been invited. As a leader of a church that sits blocks from the political heartbeat of the country with members working for both parties, he says the church has "tried to draw a line" on issues of principle without "getting involved in the debates on policy."

But the marginalization of conservative church leaders and churchgoing voters let city politicians off the hook, to the point that they have largely ignored Jackson and his allies.

"Many of our churches have moved to the suburbs. Politics in the city is a much more community-based affair," said Peter Rosenstein, who has been an activist for same-sex marriage for the last 30 years. He believes politicians no longer see ministers as intermediaries to voters as they once did.

Patrick Walker, pastor of New Macedonia Baptist, feels betrayed by politicians his church helped. From Walker's church in 2006, the chair of the city council, Vincent Gray, launched his bid for the chairmanship, and has voted for the same-sex measure. Gray, an African-American, represents an overwhelmingly black ward.

"It shocked me," Walker told me. "This is a traditional African-American family issue."

Some of the jilted pastors are trying to attract the respect of their elected officials again. Walker's church started a $50,000 scholarship program and invited Councilman Harry Thomas to present the keynote. Walker said Thomas never showed up, displaying what Walker sees as "a blatant disregard for the African-American church."

At the same time, gay activists have canvassed city government for the last 20 years, making the legalization of gay marriage a platform issue. The Gertrude Stein Club donated to the campaigns of seven of the current city council members as well as to Mayor Adrian Fenty (though in nominal amounts of $500). The National Stonewall Democrats and the Gay and Lesbian Victory Fund also pitched in with contributions.

President Barack Obama has been silent on the capital's policy on gay marriage, though he supports a repeal of the Defense of Marriage Act, which defines marriage as between a man and woman.

The council has two members who are openly gay: Jim Graham and David Catania. Catania was a lifelong Republican until 2004 when he left the party over former President Bush's appeal for a constitutional ban on gay marriage. He had raised over $50,000 for the Bush campaign. Moving forward with legislation to legalize same-sex marriage, Catania has promised that the legislation will include freedoms for district churches to choose whether or not to perform same-sex marriages.

Local leaders aren't the only ones with a say in the issue. In Washington, all of the council's laws are subject to congressional review. Socially conservative lawmakers, Republicans and a handful of Democrats, have introduced several measures in Congress either to define marriage in the district or simply disapprove the council's actions. But the scattershot efforts haven't gone anywhere with a Democratic majority in Congress.

While same-sex marriage proponents complain that the congressional lawmakers are interfering in local politics, Rep. Jim Jordan, R-Ohio, told me, "We feel like we're assisting the local leaders." Jordan said that he would have supported a referendum in the city. "When the people decide this issue, the people always get it right."

Rough polling shows that a referendum, if it happened today, could go either way. "I believe there's still a strong support base," said Jackson. "Unity of church leaders-that's our challenge." Jackson and other pastors are going ward by ward to meet with churchgoers. Despite the momentum gay activists have for a further measure legalizing same-sex marriage, Jackson thinks his coalition has a chance. "We're going to need all hands on deck," Jackson said. "We need to organize secular people who believe the council and Mayor Fenty have too much power. There's a grassroots unrest. This could be the beginning of turning things around."

Emily Belz

Emily Belz

Emily is a senior reporter for WORLD Magazine. She is a World Journalism Institute graduate and previously reported for the The New York Daily News, The Indianapolis Star, and Philanthropy magazine. Emily resides in New York City. Follow her on Twitter @emlybelz.