ATLANTA, Georgia -- Several dozen black pastors organized a rally in support of a constitutional amendment banning homosexual “marriage” in Georgia, attracting a crowd of over 250 mostly black supporters in the birthplace of the civil rights movement, Monday, March 22, 2004.
The pastors released a statement voicing not only their support for the amendment, but also their opposition to the rhetoric that equates the gay rights movement with the struggle for racial equality.
“Gay marriage is a threat to who we are and what we stand for,” said Bishop William Shields of Hopewell Baptist Church. "I'm not here tonight to discriminate against anyone. I'm here to stand on the word of God.”
Shields and 30 other pastors signed a declaration outlining their beliefs on marriage and on religion, providing a critical voice in the fight to protect marriage in Georgia.
"We wanted people to know there are African-American pastors who do take a stand that marriages are between one man and one woman," said the Rev. Woodrow Walker, pastor of Abundant Life Church in Lithonia, 15 miles east of Atlanta, who signed the statement.
"This is neither a hate nor a fear issue," the statement said. "People are free in our nation to pursue relationships as they choose. To redefine marriage, however, to suit the preference of those choosing alternative lifestyles is wrong."
Bishop Donn Thomas of Messiah's World Outreach Ministries said the civil rights movement "was a positive freedom for African-Americans to experience our capabilities as men and women created in the image of God."
"The homosexual lobby is seeking a negative freedom rooted in the sexual revolution, and it's a negative freedom from the restraint of morality," Thomas said.
Although Georgia, like 37 other states in the U.S., bans homosexual “marriage,” faith-based and pro-family groups called for a state constitution that would more clearly and explicitly ban such unions from being legalized. Last month, the motion failed at the Georgia House by a slight margin; the bill was only three votes shy of meeting the two-thirds majority needed to change the state constitution.
The influence of churches on black legislators is substantial. At the first debate, several black House members purposely didn't vote as a strategy to hurt the amendment without having to vote no and anger pastors back home. Therefore, if pressure from the black clergy sways the black caucus’ votes, the amendment may fill the 120 votes needed to send the issue to voters for final approval this fall.
Randy Hicks, president of the Georgia Family Council, which helped organize the event, agreed that the rally was a critical venture in which victory may be found.
"They're making an appropriate statement about what marriage is and what it is not," Hicks said. "These men and women can certainly be characterized as compassionate and caring, and they are concerned about things like discrimination."
Rep. Bill Hembree, R-Douglasville, who is in charge of the amendment on the House side also emphasized the importance of the pastors’ rally.
"We need every vote. It's going to be critical," said Hembree. "Last time I counted we had 121 (votes), but I'm honestly not sure what's going to happen."
If the House does not pass the amendment at this session, the bill would have start all over again next year. However, if the House passes the amendment, it would go straight to voters in the fall.