The struggle for the media spotlight is on – on both sides of the Potomac – when it comes to marriage equality.
Today, a group of African-American clergy opposed to marriage equality announced they will be holding a press conference tomorrow, Sept. 21, that directly conflicts with a similar event supporting marriage equality.
The initial press conference, set for 11 a.m. Friday at the National Press Club in D.C. and featuring leading African-American pastors such as former presidential candidate Rev. Al Sharpton, has been called to show support for Maryland's Question 6, a measure that would allow same-sex couples to obtain a marriage licenses in the state. The other event, also set for 11 a.m. Friday, but in Arlington, Va., will be announcing the "Swing State Tour" of African-American pastors – including Alveda King, niece of the late civil rights icon Martin Luther King Jr. – opposing President Obama and Democratic Party’s support for marriage equality.
The conflicting events illustrate the fight to gain the higher ground when it comes to rallying the African-American religious community regarding marriage.
In addition to Sharpton, the Rev. Delman Coates is expected speak of his support for Question 6 Friday. Coates, senior pastor of the Mt. Ennon Baptist Church in Clinton, Md., has been an outspoken proponent of marriage equality in the Free State, testifying in favor before both chambers of the Maryland General Assembly.
"We are urging Marylanders to vote 'Yes' on Question 6, and to make sure all couples and their families are treated fairly and equally under the law," the marriage-equality-minded pastors said in a statement announcing their conference. "The impression that all African-American pastors are fundamentally opposed to the idea of marriage equality is wrong. This event will display just a small cohort of influential African-American clergy voices who support the issue of civil marriage protection for gay and lesbian couples."
The marriage equality law, also known as the Civil Marriage Protection Act, narrowly passed in both the House of Delegates and the Maryland Senate in February and was signed into law by Gov. Martin O'Malley (D) in March. But in order to gain the votes for passage, the law contained a provision stating that it would not take effect until Jan. 1, 2013, thereby allowing marriage equality opponents a chance to collect enough signaturesto force the measure onto the November ballot as a referendum, in hopes of defeating it.
The pastors opposing marriage equality, calling themselves the Coalition of African-American Pastors (CAAP), will hold their event at the Hyatt Regency Crystal City at Reagan National Airport. The group plans to visit crucial swing states ahead of November’s presidential election, urging African-American Christian Democrats to oppose the president and the Democratic Party’s backing of same-sex marriage.
"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 Rev. 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."
Marylanders for Marriage Equality, the coalition of community groups, labor and religious leaders backing Question 6 has actively engaged the African-American community, and received support from prominent African-Americans such as civil rights leader Julian Bond, Baltimore Ravens quarterback Brendon Ayanbadejo, and actress Mo'Nique.
The Marylanders for Marriage Equality campaign has also tried to pre-emptively blunt attacks against marriage equality that seek to exploit racial divisions, particularly between whites and African-Americans, as black voters make up about a quarter of Maryland’s electorate.
As it appears on the ballot, Question 6 reads: "Establishes that Maryland’s civil marriage laws allow gay and lesbian couples to obtain a civil marriage license, provided they are not otherwise prohibited from marrying; protects clergy from having to perform any particular marriage ceremony in violation of their religious beliefs; affirms that each religious faith has exclusive control over its theological doctrine regarding who may marry in that faith; and provides that religious organizations and certain related entities are not required to provide goods, services or benefits to an individual related to the celebration or promotion of marriage in violation of their religious beliefs."
"This is the first time such prominent African-American clergy have come together in support of marriage equality," Marylanders for Marriage Equality spokesman Kevin Nix said in a statement. "This shows the tide is turning in every community, and is another example of the momentum within the African-American community, both in Maryland and nationally, for marriage equality. It shines a spotlight on the nature of Question 6, which is about fairness and equality for all. Religious liberty is protected under the law."