Is same-sex marriage a political or religious issue?
It is a question that many are contemplating as North Carolinians digest a new reality where same-sex marriages are now forbidden constitutionally.
The Rev. Earl C. Johnson, senior pastor of Martin Street Baptist Church in Raleigh, NC, admits that he is not completely sure.
“If you look at it from a political standpoint, which is what this has become as far as people trying to govern people’s lives and making this a Biblical debate, it overlaps,” he said. “For the church it can only be one issue along spiritual lines.”
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On Tuesday, May 8, North Carolinians voted to approve an amendment that would define marriage in that state as a union between a man and a woman.
For well over two months, Johnson and other clergy leaders in the state fought to defeat the amendment. For them, the issue is a civil rights issue. But Johnson wants to make it clear. They are in no way equating the same-sex debate with the civil rights movement. Those are two different things, he said.
“The entire amendment is not just about same sex marriage,” he said. “The amendment went too far to try and govern laws. What will they do next if they can legislate this? People’s rights are being violated. If we start tampering with the constitution, then what next?”
Rev. William Barber, president of the North Carolina NAACP, has also been working feverishly to defeat the amendment. Earlier in the week he had a critique for the news media and their coverage leading up to Tuesday’s vote. In a video, seen on YouTube, he spoke adamantly. He said the questions being asked by the media were the wrong questions.
The question should not be, or have been, “How do you feel about same-sex marriage?”
“That is not a question on the ballot. You can’t vote on religion,” he says in the six-minute video. “However you feel about same sex marriage, religious, personally or morally, you should always be against division or hatred being written into the constitution.”
For Barber, the question should have been, “Is it the state’s right to trump the federal protections of the 14th amendment? Do you believe that a majority by popular vote should get to decide the rights of a minority?”
In Johnson’s county, Wake County, their efforts worked. The amendment failed in that area. However, according to the Human Rights Campaign, Amendment One passed 61 to 39 percent.
Getting the idea out of the heads of religious people, especially Black religious people, is not an easy feat. Johnson agrees. He said many of the churches and pastors he talked to could not divorce themselves from the idea of marriage as anything other than between a man and a woman.
He said they could not see how this amendment would impact children, access to healthcare, heterosexual unions, even the state’s economy.
“They could not see the overarching picture and under-girding issues. We know that you cannot put an amendment on the table and try to educate in just two months. There are too many layers that need to be peeled away.”
But he believes this controversy is not founded on a biblical mandate. He believes that if we are to judge people’s lives Biblically, then we have failed.
“I have some things we can use the bible to justify. How about helping poor widows and women dealing with health issues,” he said. “Let’s use the bible as a social document to help for everything, not just a socio-political document.”
He finds it unfortunate how some black preachers, out being cheerleaders for the conservative movement, are being used to drive a wedge in the black community. He said the conservatives got what they wanted from the black churches, adding that they are nowhere to be found when these same preachers call on them asking for help in their church communities.
And what is even more unfortunate, Johnson adds, is the somber mood now being felt among those who were against the amendment.
“It will take something major to get them galvanized again. You had people come together from many different spheres,” he said, “and it was all because they recognized people’s rights were being violated. To get that kind of rainbow coalition together is always difficult.”
So what happens now? Johnson is not sure. He believes President Barack Obama’s announcement on Wednesday was a good move. But he has his concerns.
“For president to come out and talk about civil rights is a turning point for civil rights, as Mayor Bloomberg said. I think it is wonderful to give people hope in that view. At the same time,” he said, “NC is one of those states he is looking at that he will have to win. How much will that hurt him in his re-election, especially in these battleground states like Virginia and North Carolina? These people have made up their mind.”
If anything come out of this, he said, he hopes putting Democrats back in political power in North Carolina is one outcome.
Follow Mashaun D. Simon on Twitter at @memadosi