Gay-marriage advocates, opponents speak out in church

In the old Brown Memorial Park Avenue Presbyterian Church in Bolton Hill, the congregation on Sunday gave a prayer of thanks for what the Rev. Andrew Foster Connors described as "the new light of hope arising from the Maryland State House."

Barely two miles down the road in the Greater Harvest Baptist Church, where members demonstrate their devotion by swaying in place and calling out their approval to their pastor's words, the Rev. Rev. Errol Gilliard Sr. issued a call to arms.

"They took your tax dollars to push an immoral bill," Gilliard preached into his microphone, holding a white handkerchief by his side. "But, sometimes you've got to lose the battle to win the war."

Two days after Maryland's House of Delegates approved a bill that would legalize same-sex marriage, the debate continued inside the congregations of Maryland's churches.

Technically, the bill that the legislators approved by a vote of 72-67 — just one vote more than the minimum required — is a civil matter. But, from the beginning, it has had profound religious implications. And if, as seems likely, the bill is approved by the state Senate, signed into law by Gov. Martin O'Malley and submitted to voters in November in a binding referendum, Maryland's churches will play a key role in approving or defeating the emotionally charged measure.

As a result, congregations on both sides of the debate are already planning their next move.

The Brown Memorial Church in Bolton Hill has a long history of advocating for gay rights. About 30 of the church's 265 members are gay, Connors said, adding that when he was hired eight years ago, the search committee "made it very clear to me that I was expected to participate in the struggle."

Delegates Luke H. Clippinger and Keiffer J. Mitchell Jr., who were instrumental in the bill's passage, were raised in Brown Memorial, and the two families have sat side by side in the same pew for years. During the 11 a.m. service, Connors gestured toward Luke Clippinger's father, Lynn, and Mitchell's mother, Nannette. He said:

"It's a great day for us to celebrate the successful vote in the House and to see these two families, who know what it means to fight for equality, sitting in church together."

The parishioners erupted in spontaneous applause.

Luke Clippinger also attended the service; afterward, a steady stream of well-wishers came by to give him a hug, say thank you and plot strategy.

"This is only phase one," Page Campbell, 71, of Towson said. "The referendum that's coming up will be the big struggle."

Across town, the Rising Sun First Baptist Church in Gwynn Oak is presided over by its pastor, the Rev. Emmett C. Burns Jr., who also serves as a delegate in the House. Burns had voted against the same-sex marriage bill Friday night in Annapolis.

"I lost the first round, but I'll tell you about the second round," Burns told dozens of worshippers who attended the 8 a.m. service. "We're going to win this thing."

He'll have plenty of help from Gilliard, who leads a coalition of black church leaders who have been working to defeat the same-sex marriage bill. During an 11 a.m. service at the Harvest Baptist Church, Gilliard used humor to rally his congregation from the pulpit.

Pretending to address O'Malley, the pastor said, "Everybody wants a happy family, but I don't see you marrying the lieutenant governor if it's so right."

As his congregation laughed and clapped and cheered, Gilliard, continued, pacing at the head of the congregation:

"Call it what you want. It ain't nothing but sin. Homosexuality is the only sin they refuse to call a sin. We might as well have polygamy."

For proponents of same-sex marriage, those may be fighting words. But some say success will depend on finding common ground.

During an adult education session that preceded the service at Brown Memorial, moderator Bob Hollander urged the 12 to 15 church members who participated to openly discuss their own personal experiences — and to listen non-judgmentally to the stories of those who disagree with them.

"The people on the other side of the same-sex marriage issue are good people, conscientious people, and they have heartfelt concerns," said Hollander, a social worker who supports gay rights.

"We won't get anywhere if we don't allow them to express their fears. In the end, we're all on the same side — the human side."



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