The Rev. James Meeks took to the pulpit of the enormous House of Hope at Salem Baptist Church of Chicago and exhorted his congregation to make its voice heard by lawmakers who will vote on whether to allow gay marriage in Illinois.
"We're living in a time where, here in our own state ... they are about to make the law of the land that a man can marry a man and a woman can marry a woman. I think it's time for the church to wake up," said Meeks, a former state senator, on a recent Sunday.
During Illinois' lengthy and divisive debate on same-sex marriage, perhaps no group of lawmakers has been singled out for more intensive lobbying than African-American state representatives.
With the measure a dozen votes or less shy of the 60 required for final approval, advocates on either side of the issue consider the 20 black House members as key swing votes in the spring session.
The traditionally liberal black caucus, however, has not uniformly lined up in favor of gay marriage, even as home-state President Barack Obama switched course and backed it. Only one of the 14 House co-sponsors is black.
Some African-American lawmakers are uncomfortable with characterizations of gay rights as the latest front in the civil rights movement.
Others fear political repercussions, saying ministers opposed to same-sex marriage have warned legislators who vote for it to never come back to their churches, where politicians traditionally campaign on the final Sundays before an election.
"To be honest with you, it's a little disheartening," said Democratic state Rep. Will Davis, a black caucus member who has not made up his mind as he works out whether gay marriage is a moral or public policy issue.
"There are so many large-scale issues important to the black community, but you've never heard from them," Davis said of the churches opposed to gay marriage. "This doesn't create jobs. It doesn't create opportunities and, for the most part, they are silent on helping African-Americans getting job opportunities in this state. They are silent on the increasing prison population."
The bill contains a provision stating that religious institutions that oppose same-sex marriage could not be forced to perform ceremonies for same-sex couples, but religious leaders opposed to the measure argue that allowing such unions is against Bible-based morals.
Meeks, a once-considerable political presence whose religious role still carries significant influence, was tapped as the voice for thousands of automated calls into African-American homes warning that "our family structure as we know it is in serious jeopardy" if same-sex marriage is legalized.
In mid-March, the African-American Clergy Coalition formed an independent-expenditure political action committee with $3,000 from supportive ministers.
"When I saw that the lawmakers were excited about passing legislation about same-sex marriage, it's a slap in the face of the Bible," said the PAC's chairman, Lance Davis, bishop of New Zion Christian Fellowship Covenant Church in Dolton. "I didn't see that kind of enthusiasm about stopping children from killing children in the streets."
The Rev. Davis said the same-sex marriage issue "has really galvanized us" and wants the PAC to address other issues of concern to the black community, rather than support or oppose political candidates.
But advocates for same-sex marriage also have sought help from the pulpit. They've sent lawmakers letters of support from more than 300 faith leaders across the state that, in the words of one clergyman, seek to differentiate a religious rite from a civil right.
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