Leaders of socially conservative but traditionally Democratic black churches are bucking the conventional wisdom that a vote against same-sex marriage will automatically be reflected at the top of the ticket.
Veteran civil rights leader the Reverend Fred Shuttlesworth, pastor of Greater New Light Missionary Baptist Church in Cincinnati, sees no conflict in voting against gay marriage as a state issue and for Democrat John Kerry as president. Nationally, Shuttlesworth is less worried about marriage than about people who have no health insurance or cannot pay their utility bills. "To me, that's one of the biggest sins in the world," he said. "God sent Jesus to help the needy."
Ohio is one of 11 states in which voters will decide on adopting constitutional amendments banning same-sex marriage. Ohio's proposal goes further than many, denying legal recognition to any unmarried couple. Cincinnati voters also will decide whether to repeal the only city charter amendment of its kind, which forbids passage of any ordinance that prohibits discrimination based on sexual orientation. In Ohio both Roman Catholic and black Protestant ministers have had news conferences urging support of the constitutional amendment, which will be Issue 1 on the statewide ballot.
Shuttlesworth, who marched alongside Martin Luther King Jr. for the right to vote, has appeared in campaign literature and told his congregation to support the gay marriage ban and oppose repealing the Cincinnati ballot measure against gay rights. Clergy cannot advocate directly for or against a partisan candidate from the pulpit, but there's no such restrictions on an issues campaign, said David Bositis, researcher for the Washington, D.C.-based Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, which focuses on issues concerning blacks.
The Joint Center's national poll released this month showed that Bush had doubled his support among blacks, to 18% from 9% in 2000. That probably has more to do with Bush's funding for faith-based initiatives than gay marriage, Bositis said. And Kerry still has a wide lead, with 69% of blacks saying they'll vote for him.
Bishop Eugene Ward, pastor of Greater Love Missionary Baptist Church in Cleveland, had a rally in support of Issue 1 last month. He said he has not endorsed a presidential candidate. "The church has been quiet too long," said Ward, who is black. "We're living in a sinful society, and it's becoming more blatant." Meanwhile, about 135 United Methodist ministers and Jewish rabbis have voiced opposition to the amendment, with some even e-mailing parishioners.
Republicans have been trying to find a wedge issue that will break blacks off from their support for Kerry and persuade them to vote Republican, said Todd Donovan, a Western Washington University political science professor who studies how ballot initiatives affect voter turnout. "This one doesn't seem to be doing it," he said.