Michigan legislator Triette Reeves has few evangelical Christians living in her Detroit district. As a black Democrat, she has never associated with religious conservatives.
But there she was at a recent news conference, standing with white evangelical Republicans in support of a state constitutional amendment to define marriage as an institution involving a man and a woman -- blocking legalization of same-sex marriage.
Across the country, unusual alliances are forming to protect the traditional definition of marriage from anticipated court rulings. While the movement draws from a variety of demographic groups, it relies heavily on two -- white evangelicals and religious blacks -- that have historically been at odds over issues ranging from affirmative action to welfare reform.
On gay marriage, they seem to be reading from the same Bible.
"I know people are trying to make this into a sexy thing, like, `Ooh, it's a conspiracy, they're getting together,'" said Reeves. "I have no interest in being a Republican. I'm a Democrat. But I believe there should be some diversity in our party, and the diversity I'm talking about is the freedom to be consistent with our moral beliefs.
"From the African-American perspective, which is the only perspective I can give, our focus is, `God said it, we believe it, and we should promote it.' I know that sounds elementary but it's really that simple."
For years, gay marriage seemed an unlikely possibility. But that was before an eventful summer.
In June, the Supreme Court struck down Texas' anti-sodomy law, which, according to Justice Antonin Scalia's blistering dissent, clears the legal path for gay marriage. Some legal scholars say the breakthrough ruling could come in pending court decisions on gay marriage in Massachusetts and New Jersey.
Polls show the shift in thinking.
In May, a Gallup survey reported that 49 percent of the public would support a law allowing gay men and lesbians to form civil unions providing some of the rights and legal protections of marriage. When a Washington Post poll asked the same question in August, support had dropped to 37 percent.
Gay rights groups are hoping that's just a blip on a longer trend line showing increasing acceptance of gay marriage. They argue the definition of marriage needs to be broadened to secure equal rights and benefits, such as Social Security survivor benefits.
"Gay Americans are taxpaying, hard-working citizens who deserve these basic legal protections," said Winnie Stachelberg, political director of the Human Rights Campaign, a gay advocacy group.
Opposition to gay marriage is strongest among two groups, according to a survey released July 24 by the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life. More than eight of 10 white evangelicals and six of 10 African-Americans oppose the idea.
Given that blacks and evangelicals are extremely loyal to their respective parties, the issue presents intriguing possibilities to political strategists.
A May 7 memo by Republican pollster Richard Wirthlin calls a federal marriage amendment "an ideal wedge issue." It says supporting such an amendment "does not alienate the base" while potentially peeling a percentage of African-Americans away from the Democrats.
"In sum," the memo concludes, "it is an issue that if handled properly can work very much to the advantage of Republican candidates, if it gains some visibility prior to the 2004 election."
Democrats acknowledge that theoretically, they could lose black votes. But they say it's unlikely.
"There's a real phenomenon here," said William Galston, professor of civic engagement at the University of Maryland and a former domestic policy official for the Clinton administration. "But what is also the case is African-Americans tend to be cross-pressured on a range of issues and are
intensely suspicious of relationships that take them where they don't want to go."
Consider the Rev. Walter Fauntroy. In a long career of religious and political activism, he organized civil rights marches with Martin Luther King Jr., went to Congress as a District of Columbia delegate and helped found the Congressional Black Caucus.
Fauntroy supports the marriage amendment idea. He does so, he says, because the family unit in the African-American community is already under assault, and changing marriage only worsens the situation.
"I'm unalterably opposed to anything that redefines marriage as anything other than an institution for two purposes, the socialization of children and the perpetuation of the species," he said.
Fauntroy is a spokesman for the Alliance for Marriage, a nonpartisan group pushing the marriage amendment. The alliance also has been endorsed by two large, predominantly black denominations: the African Methodist Episcopal Church and the Church of God in Christ. That gives the uphill push
for a constitutional amendment "special credibility," said alliance president Matt Daniels, because a key argument for gay marriage is that it's an extension of the civil rights movement.
While important, the issue is rarely discussed in black neighborhoods, Fauntroy said.
"When I step outside the door of this church, nobody is going to ask me, 'Rev, what do you think about gay marriage?' That may be a nice discussion in some places, but it isn't on the radar screen here. People here are saying, 'Lord, have mercy, I don't have health care; I need more income.' And, 'Reverend, get my boy out of jail; all he had was an ounce while the guys pushing it only got a misdemeanor.'"
In contrast, conservative activists say concern about gay marriage is electrifying the evangelical Christian community, rivaling abortion as an issue. Oct. 12-18 has been deemed "Marriage Protection Week," with pastors encouraged to preach about marriage and voters urged to call their representatives in support of the constitutional amendment.
Gary Bauer, a 2000 presidential candidate who now directs the group American Values, said, "I have not seen in 30 years of battle an issue resonating like this one."
© 2003 Religion News Service.