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Black clergy struggles with religious liberty, discrimination

By Adelle M. Banks/Religion News Service
On July 27, 2015
Jerry Young

National Baptist Convention USA President Jerry Young doesn’t support
gay marriage but is wary of any discrimination against the LGBT.
Credit: wtok.com

(RNS) – Since the Supreme Court ruled that same-sex marriage is constitutional, the Rev. Jerry Young has been in a predicament.

As the president of the National Baptist Convention, USA, a predominantly Black denomination, he is grappling with a new reality: how to respond to the specter of discrimination against gays.

While he doesn’t support gay marriage, the refusal of some religious bakers and florists to provide services to gays prompts memories of racially segregated hotels and restaurants.

“On the one hand, you have to be sensitive to the fact that you do not want people to be victims of discrimination — that’s just an absolute fact — you just do not want that to happen,” said Young, who grew up in Mississippi in the civil rights era and is developing a position paper to guide NBCUSA congregations on these issues.

“And on the other hand, there is this tension between what, as Christians, we believe God has called us to do, and what it appears to be, in some sense, what the culture seems to be doing.”

Though some national Black Baptist denominations and the Church of God in Christ oppose same-sex marriage, a new poll from Public Religion Research Institute shows that 63 percent of non-White Protestants object to religious exemptions in nondiscrimination laws.

The Rev. Fred Davie, executive vice president of Union Theological Seminary and a gay Presbyterian Church (USA) minister, said he thinks most Black clergy share concerns about discrimination.

“Most of us know the sting of that and the scourge of that and don’t want to repeat it even though they would reserve the right to choose who to marry, who not to marry, in their churches,” said Davie, who is married to Michael Adams, his partner of 17 years.

Seventeen states have introduced legislation to create or alter state-level religious freedom restoration laws, some of which could affect same-sex marriages. Many Voices, a pro-LGBT group that works with Black churches, said it hopes to influence legislators crafting those bills.

“Voices of faith leaders will be required to hold in balance the highly valued religious liberty we enjoy along with freedoms and protections for LGBT persons and their families,” said the Rev. Cedric Harmon, co-director of Many Voices.

Not all African-American clergy oppose same-sex marriage, but many oppose laws that would allow legal discrimination against a group of people.

However, the Rev. T. DeWitt Smith Jr., an Atlanta pastor and co-chair of the National African American Clergy Network, said he doesn’t think owners of mom-and-pop establishments should be equated with the segregationists of the past.

While some businesses may make that choice based on religious belief, “I don’t really equate that with the denial of hotel space based on color, ethnicity,” said Smith.

Bishop Talbert W. Swan II, a Church of God in Christ pastor in Springfield, Massachusetts, agreed that the church-run bakery down the street from his congregation should have the right to deny its services to a gay couple.

“So if someone walks into the New Hope Bakery and said, ‘We wanted you to bake a cake for a same-sex marriage ceremony,’ I think they should have every right to say `No, we won’t bake that cake,’” said Swan. “They should have every right to refuse to bake a product that’s going to be associated with something that violates their religious belief.”

But he said a for-profit corporation that serves the general public should not have an exemption.

The Rev. Terence Leathers of Clayton, North Carolina, unsuccessfully lobbied his state legislature, which passed a law allowing magistrates to refuse to perform a same-sex marriage ceremony. He feels magistrates and bakers should not deny services to LGBT people and connects these issues to times when other discrimination was evident — like the nearby town that once had a welcome sign that read: “This is KLAN country.”

“It’s discriminatory and should not be tolerated,” said Leathers.

But he admits to feeling like he’s a lone voice among black clergy in his rural area.

“There are people who may be for me but they’re keeping it silent,” said Leathers. “They don’t want to cause any trouble.”

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