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Va. Gay 'Marriage' Opponents Seek Black Church Support

Proponents of a constitutional ban on gay marriage in Virginia are tapping black churches, hosting luncheons for clergy, speaking before ministerial conventions and adding staffers with connections am
( [email protected] ) Sep 04, 2006 04:41 PM EDT

VIRGINIA BEACH, Va. (AP) — Proponents of a constitutional ban on gay marriage in Virginia are tapping black churches, hosting luncheons for clergy, speaking before ministerial conventions and adding staffers with connections among black ministers.

They're targeting the pastors - all-trusted and consulted on everything from marriage to job decisions - as a bridge to black voters who traditionally vote Democrat but often hold conservative social positions.

"African-American churches and social conservatives have more in common in our belief system than anyone could imagine," Chris Freund, of the Family Foundation, told a group of mostly black and Latino ministers last month at Pat Robertson's Regent University.

"We need you to be the voice of marriage in Virginia."

The foundation, a major force behind the proposed constitutional amendment, has targeted some 3,000 churches, about 20 percent of them headed by black or Latino pastors, Freund said.

They've held a dozen breakfasts and luncheons including minority pastors; at least four more events are planned through the fall, Freund said.

Pastors are being buffeted with booklets and DVDs, church bulletin inserts and "pastor packets" detailing what the amendment means and how to explain it to congregations.

Organizers are depending on shared religious beliefs _ that gay marriage counters man and woman's biblical roles, for instance _ to break the ice before the Nov. 7 election.

"There are things that my wife can do for (my daughter) that I can't _ we're different," Freund said as the pastors nodded emphatically. "Children fare better with a mom and a dad."

Blacks comprise up to 18 percent of Virginia's registered votes. They're reliable Democratic voters, but many hold views to the right of the party line, said Daniel Simmons, one of two black community activists recently added at Va4Marriage, a pro-amendment campaign of the Family Foundation.

For instance, a rising tide of black activists and social commentators has taken an anti-abortion stance, citing fears that abortion disproportionately impacts the black population.

Tracy Brown, a Tidewater area coordinator with Va4Marriage, translates faith-based initiatives for 1,000 black pastors across the country through his nonprofit Urban Awareness USA. On the whole, he said blacks aren't knowledgeable about the gay marriage issue.

One reason, he said, is blacks often are too preoccupied with finding jobs and feeding families to pay much attention to debates on social issues.

Their pastors, meanwhile, are typically strapped for resources at mid-sized churches, and can't dedicate time to researching the issue, Brown said.

"There's a huge disconnect," he added. "They're not involved with the flow of information."

The Rev. Allen McFarland, whose Calvary Evangelical Baptist Church in Portsmouth draws 800 worshippers weekly, spoke bluntly of a bigger obstacle: mistrust of white activists who only show up near election time.

"You are not going to get into the African-American community," McFarland told Freund, who's white, before the pastor offered $1,000 to help fund more full-time black staff.

That leaves it to ministers like Bishop Leon Benjamin of Richmond's New Life Harvest Church. Benjamin, who supports traditional marriage through his cable access marriage advice show, embraced his role in getting blacks to talk about an issue they typically avoid.

"It's not brought up, even though you see it all over the news," Benjamin said. "That's where we come in."

Family Foundation and Va4Marriage also have translated fliers supporting the amendment into Spanish; they're working on Korean translations, Freund said.

The Commonwealth Coalition, a group united against the amendment, is depending instead on a campaign that approaches each voter the same way, said campaign director Claire Guthrie Gastanaga.

"We don't view this as a special interest. It's part of our generally inclusive approach," said Gastanaga, who pointed to the coalition's racially diverse advisory council.

But one size doesn't necessarily fit all, said Larry Pellegrini, an Atlanta area political analyst who spent years lobbying for gay and other progressive rights before the Georgia General Assembly.

Georgia's high court recently reinstated a constitutional amendment banning gay marriage. Proponents there also appealed to black pastors.

"There's a different message for every group. It never really would work to tell an African American that our (gay) struggles are the same," said Pellegrini. Latino voters, meanwhile, might respond well to a campaign likening gay discrimination to anti-immigrant sentiments, he said.

In Georgia, Pellegrini said efforts to specifically target disaffected groups like blacks paid off at the polls.

In Virginia, the Family Foundation hopes for the same.

"You still have the white/black Sunday morning separation there," McFarland said. "But when it comes to morality, I think we line up."

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