As referendum nears, faithful push for traditional marriage

Bishop Willard E. Saunders Jr. quieted his Cherry Hill sanctuary Sunday morning, signaling for the music and the hallelujahs to stop so his words would come across clearly.

"If something is perfect, it does not need changing," Saunders said, his image beaming from two screens on either side of the pulpit. "You can't redefine what God has already called perfect.

"Marriage, the institution, is perfect," he continued. "It is the people who are imperfect."

The Hour of Power sermon was repeated in black churches across Maryland Sunday and will keep going all month, part of a coordinated effort by opponents of same-sex marriage to spread their message from the pulpit leading up to the referendum on Nov. 6. The Archdiocese of Baltimore, though technically not part of the "Marriage Sundays" effort, encouraged its priests to talk about the coming same-sex marriage referendum Sunday since the set scripture focused on marriage.

The churches are placing a particular emphasis on African-American voters because many are becoming open to same-sex marriage after President Barack Obama and the NAACP's board of directors announced their support for it. Black communities have long been seen as critical to both sides of the marriage question in Maryland — they made up about a quarter of the electorate four years ago and are expected to come out to vote in similar numbers this fall.

Polls, including a recent survey by The Baltimore Sun, show the demographic is moving in favor of same-sex marriage, though the support is soft.

Faith communities are not monolithic, and some prominent black pastors and Catholics are rooting for passage of Question 6, which would legalize gay unions, even if they wouldn't perform those weddings in their own sanctuaries.

"This is about whether we will live in a society where everyone is treated equally under the law, or whether we will have one standard for some and another standard for others," said the Rev. Donte L. Hickman Sr., pastor of Southern Baptist Church, in a recent email.

"I will uphold the rights of all people, regardless of their religious beliefs and personal choices," he said.

Other powerful ministers are staying on the sidelines. The Rev. Jamal Bryant, of the Empowerment Temple, personally opposes same-sex marriage but will not be active in the campaign to defeat it at the ballot box, according to a spokeswoman. He did not return calls seeking comment.

Those churches that are participating in the campaign have a full schedule planned: They are registering voters ahead of the Oct. 16 deadline. And with one early voting day falling on a Sunday this year, some plan to drive parishioners directly to their polling places after services.

Copies of the Catholic Review with a column by Baltimore Archbishop William E. Lori urging opposition to Question 6 were passed out at parishes for the past two Sundays. Lori has also written a letter to Catholics on the topic that will be distributed Oct. 21.

The archdiocese sent out sample reflections to be delivered from the altar Sunday that include a lengthy discussion of Adam and Eve and the early biblical verses. Marriage is "something far more than just a social arrangement or a set of customs," the document read. "Rather, marriage is revealed as the primordial sacrament."

Said Sean Caine, a spokesman for the Baltimore Archdiocese: "This is a settled teaching; this is not a teaching that is up for debate. We've provided materials to encourage people to vote."

Churches and religious institutions were the most influential opponents of same-sex marriage in the General Assembly, particularly among black and Catholic Democrats. They mounted a robust lobbying effort in 2011, which stopped the gay-marriage bill from coming to a vote in the House of Delegates that year. The same religious coalition nearly defeated the measure again in February in the House, where it eventually passed by a two-vote margin.

The faith community regrouped in the spring and spearheaded the signature-gathering effort that triggered a referendum. It collected roughly 122,000 petitions, more than twice the amount required to put the bill to referendum.

Since then, the opponents have been fairly quiet, save the occasional fundraising email. But their campaign is heating up. Last week, the Maryland Marriage Alliance sent out a Web-only video featuring Ravens center Matt Birk, a Catholic, who defended traditional marriage.

Both sides of the debate will debut television commercials this week, with opponents planning theirs to go up Monday and supporters to show theirs Wednesday. The intensity of commercials won't quite reach the gambling frenzy for Baltimore-area viewers but will still crowd the airwaves, if early documents about ad buys filed with the Federal Communications Commission hold.

At Saunders' church, the Created For So Much More Worship Center in Cherry Hill, the Pentecostal congregation had an emotional morning. Before talking about marriage, Saunders highlighted a man who was recovering from cancer. The congregation rejoiced that another had survived a gunshot wound. All prayed for a woman with an immune disorder.

After a discussion of medical miracles, Saunders turned to the coming referendum.

"Oh, help me, Holy Ghost," he said, speaking to a congregation of about 250. He said he'd struggled with his own marriage. He said he was struggling with the sermon. But, he said, he knows that God wanted marriage to be between a man and a woman.

"I don't believe it is a political question," he roared. "The question should not even be on the ballot. God's will is not up for a vote."

The faithful clapped. Some women held their right hands above their heads, with their palms faced upward.

"Go vote," Saunders said. "Vote for whoever you want to for president. When it comes down to Question 6, I believe I'm in the right. … It is a question that goes against God's will."

On the other side of the issue, the faithful are working outside the church walls. Sometimes that is by choice — a group of African-American pastors gathered for a news conference last month in Washington to express their hope that the law is upheld.

Other times it is not. The Catholic Church has barred supportive same-sex marriage literature or discussion in the parishes, so Catholics who want Question 6 find other venues to express their views.

"We have to be strategic about how we get our message out," said Ryan Sattler, head of a group called Catholics for Marriage Equality. "We know that the Catholic vote is very important in Maryland. We are doing our best to get our voice of fairness."

Last week, nearly a dozen Catholics gathered at the Marylanders for Marriage Equality headquarters in Canton to staff a phone bank — from the same office space Gov. Martin O'Malley used for his two gubernatorial campaigns.

Sitting at a wooden table with a call sheet, a cellphone and a printout titled "What the Bible says — and doesn't say — about homosexuality" was Sue Hillis, a 62-year-old mother of two from Baltimore County.

"Hello. My name is Sue. I have a gay son," she said, speaking on the cellphone, which was provided by the marriage equality campaign.

"That is wonderful," she said to the caller. "You understand? Oh, really? As a Catholic, that has to be difficult."

She paused.

"To be a Catholic and have a gay son," she said. "This is not his decision. This is the way God made him."

Sue hung up with a triumphant smile: "Her boss is gay!"

She dialed another number.

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