The letters and other more direct lobbying are "done to give a comfort level to legislators that they'll be doing the right thing and to give them some protection and some language to understand the issue and to use with their constituents and own faith leaders," said one same-sex marriage supporter who was not authorized to discuss lobbying tactics.
On Thursday, a group of black clergy will hold a news conference in Chicago to urge passage of the gay marriage bill in the Illinois House, the last hurdle given that Democratic Gov. Pat Quinn has said he will sign the measure into law.
The Rev. L. Bernard Jakes of West Point Missionary Baptist Church in Chicago contended that same-sex couples, many of them active in the African-American church, are being denied a basic right.
"Many of the same-gendered loving couples love Jesus as much as I, and they believe in Scripture with the same fervor by which I believe," Jakes noted in a statement to lawmakers.
"Their only legal lot in life is they are prevented from sharing in a life-long legal commitment with their partner -- many of double-digit years. This is what makes it a matter of civil rights," he wrote.
The Chicago Urban League also has waded into the controversy.
"Now is the time to stand up for equality for all Illinois citizens," Andrea Zopp, the group's president and CEO, wrote in an email to same-sex marriage supporters. "That's what we at the Chicago Urban League have been doing for nearly 100 years -- standing up for equality for African-Americans and all who experience discrimination."
Democratic state Rep. Christian Mitchell is the lone African-American co-sponsor of the same-sex marriage bill. The freshman lawmaker acknowledged his support was not "easy" but said that "pretty quickly it struck me as the right thing to do."
"Anything that diminishes a fellow citizen diminishes me," Mitchell said. "Discrimination is wrong, no matter who it targets. Any time a group is being oppressed is wrong."
Mitchell said complaints that legalizing same-sex marriage attacks the family are "absolutely ridiculous" when families already are under siege due to poverty, low-paying jobs and the lack of affordable child care and quality education -- as well as divorce among opposite-sex couples.
But there is no uniformity on the issue among the African-American lawmakers. In February, state Rep. Eddie Lee Jackson Sr., was the lone Democrat to vote against advancing the same-sex marriage bill out of the powerful House Executive Committee.
Jackson and other black lawmakers opposed to the measure did not return calls for comment.
Democratic state Rep. Ken Dunkin, who heads the House side of the black caucus, acknowledged there is heavy pressure on African-American lawmakers from preachers to oppose the same-sex marriage bill, and there is a division among black lawmakers on the issue.
"A lot of them still say that they can't vote" for gay marriage, said Dunkin, who supports the bill.
Some lawmakers in the black caucus don't like the use of the term "civil right" to try to link the struggle of African-Americans to that of gays and lesbians.
"For me, and I know some wouldn't agree, I do have trouble equating it to a civil right," said Rep. Davis, the lawmaker who is undecided.
"When I think about the path of the African-American in this country -- and people who didn't choose to come to this country -- to me, sexual preference is a choice. Some would argue genetics. In my opinion, it's still a choice," Davis said.
Democratic state Rep. Greg Harris, the House sponsor of the same-sex marriage bill, said the divisions on the issue, including among churches, is "emblematic of the state at large."
"Everyone knows the trajectory that this issue is going in," said Harris, a who is gay. "I think the good thing is, as people make arguments pro and con whether through lobbying or the media, public opinion is breaking. ... Let's have the discussion and talk about pros and cons and debunk the myths, and people will make the decision."
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