This week, same-sex marriage opponents in Washington state plan to turn in signatures for Referendum 74. The measure seeks to rollback the state’s recent legalization of gay marriage.
Conservative churches are a key base for the Referendum campaign, including many African American churches. Numerous polls show black voters, compared to whites, are more opposed to gay marriage.
Now, some wonder how these voters’ views might shift given President Obama’s support for marriage equality.
In the first of our two-part series about same-sex marriage and the church, Liz Jones visits two Baptist churches in the Puget Sound area.
Leaders of the two congregations have a deep, historical bond… and a huge ideological divide.
Bethlehem Baptist is one of the oldest churches in Tacoma. It dates back to 1890. On this Sunday, a few hundred people fill the sanctuary. All but a few are black. Women wear dresses and hats. Men are in suits. Ushers with white gloves pass the offering plates. It feels like a place steeped in history and tradition.
After the nearly 3-hour service, I meet Associate Minister Leroy Pitts in the church foyer.
Pitts: “Have you signed this petition yet?”
Woman: “What petition?”
Pitts has two tables set up to collect signatures for Referendum 74, to repeal gay marriage. Some people he asks hesitate and slip out the door. But most are quick to sign.
Jones: “Could I ask you why you chose to sign the petition?”
John Rhinegold: “The Bible said that no man should lay with no man, or no woman should lay with no woman. And I’m a deacon so, you know, I follow that Bible. Yeah.”
William McCray: “It will our lead kids to the wrong direction and they will always question who they are.”
Annie: “Same sex partners already have all the privileges of a married man and woman. They just want the name.”
Those are the voices of John Rhinegold, William McCray and a woman named Annie who didn’t want to give her last name.
Reverend Pitts nods along with them. He’s been a part of this congregation about 25 years. His views on same-sex marriage match up with head pastor here… and, he says, with the Bible.
Pitts: “At beginning of time, when God brought men and women together. He said for them to be fruitful and multiply. Now, how are they going to multiply if they’re both of the same nature? So, that doesn’t even work in God’s plan.”
In the church, sometimes it comes down to a cliché.
Braxton: “God didn’t make Adam and Steve. He made Adam and Eve.”
That’s Leslie Braxton, another Baptist pastor in Seattle. He delivered that line in one of his first sermons in the 80s.
Braxton: “I resorted like so many other pastors to getting a cheap applause line, a cheap amen.”
Braxton grew up at Bethlehem Baptist.
Braxton: “I was baptized there when I was six years of age. I was licensed, ordained and married at Bethlehem. My wife went to Bethlehem Baptist Church.”
His wife’s parents still go there. He knows Revered Pitts and all the other church leaders.
But as a kid, at Bethlehem, Braxton says he started to wonder what God really thinks about homosexuality. The pastor preached it was wrong and immoral. Yet, Braxton remembers people in the congregation who he says everybody knew was gay. They were prominent members of the church.
Braxton: “And they would sit there and take them slights and slaps when the pastor was blasting and I’m sure they felt extremely uncomfortable.”
Braxton says he struggled for years with that contradiction in the church. Now he has his own Baptist congregation at New Beginnings Christian Fellowship. It’s in Renton, just 20 miles away from his hometown church in Tacoma.
But his views on homosexuality have traveled a huge distance from the elders who mentored him there.
Braxton: “I think it is a violation of human rights to subject anyone to a second class form of treatment because of their sexual orientation. People say do I believe in same sex marriage. I say, no, I believe in freedom.”
Reverend Pitts is somewhat surprised a child raised at Bethlehem could arrive at that view.
But he’s not surprised it’s Braxton.
Pitts: “I do hear that he was a person who asked a lot of questions about the Bible and stuff like that.”
Pitts didn’t know Braxton as a kid – they met later. Pitts is 76 years old; Braxton is 51.
Like Braxton, Pitts was raised in traditional black churches… first in the South then in the Northwest. His position on homosexuality has never wavered.
Pitts: “I’ve been against from the beginning. When they first started this in the early 60s - when they started coming out of the closet – I, no, I can’t see how a man sleep with another man. No.”
Now, Pitts says Christians have a responsibility to defend the church’s traditional definition of marriage.
He questions how Braxton, a fellow Baptist pastor, could take a different view.
Pitts: “I would ask him how could he be acceptable to gay marriages when the Bible clearly states that it’s not acceptable with God. It’s not my right to disagree over what God says.”
Braxton: “The very fact that homosexuality has been in every place in every time in history. That’s why they discuss it even in the Bible, because they saw it then. That’s all the evidence that you need that there’s something involuntary going on here.”
Religion aside, Braxton’s also come to see same-sex marriage as an issue of equal rights.
Braxton: “For me, I’ve been black too long. I’ve been fighting against discrimination too long to now discriminate about what discrimination I’m going to fight about.”
Pitts says he doesn’t appreciate that common comparison of the rights black people fought for in the 60s and what gay people are fighting for now.
Pitts: “Civil rights is rights that you fight for that everybody should have – by man’s law, by God’s law: Employment, yes. Schooling, yes. Housing, yes. Marriage, no.
Braxton estimates about 1600 people attend his church in Renton. In the past few years, he’s preached to them about gay rights and human sexuality. Those sermons have prompted some people to leave and others to thank him.
Braxton says he’s been intentionally moving his congregation toward more acceptance of gay rights. But the pace is gradual and cautious.
Braxton: “Don’t fool yourself. There are issues that can tear the whole things up because they are so emotional.”
Jones: “Is this one of them, do you think?”
Braxton: “Yes, it is. It’s one of those kinds of issues. It’s so frightening for some people because then they wonder, ‘Well, what’s next?’”
What’s next could be a same-sex wedding at Braxton’s church… someday. He’s pretty sure he’ll officiate one at some point, although he says no one’s asked him to yet.
Despite their opposite views, Pitts and Braxton do agree on one major political point: President Obama. They both voted for Obama before he backed marriage equality, and they plan to vote for him again.
Copyright 2012 Northwest Public Radio