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D.C. Religious Left Clergy Rally for Gay MarriageJeff Walton June 3, 2009
Religious left clergy in Washington, D.C., met for a press conference on June 2 to unveil a pro-gay marriage declaration signed by 136 Washington pastors. The declaration is the latest in a back-and-forth public relations battle between clergy groups that support and oppose the D.C. Council’s vote to begin recognizing same-sex marriages conducted in other jurisdictions. The legislation still must gain the approval of the United States Congress, which oversees the D.C. Council, before it can take effect.
Traditionalist pastors have raised concerns that the recognition of same-sex marriages from outside of Washington, D.C., will quickly lead to the granting of same-sex marriage rights for District residents.
The Rev. Dr. Dennis Wiley and Rev. Dr. Christine Wiley of Covenant Baptist Church strongly endorsed the legalization of same-sex marriages in the District of Columbia.
That outcome would be a welcome one for the Human Rights Campaign and D.C. Clergy United for Marriage Equality, sponsors of the press conference. Including prominent Episcopal and United Methodist ministers, along with other mainline Christians, Unitarians, and some black church leaders, the press conference took place in Ward 8, a section of the city with many churches and a high concentration of African American residents. The decision to hold the press conference in Ward 8, rather than downtown or Capitol Hill, was a conscious decision, according to Rev. Dr. Dennis Wiley of Covenant Baptist Church, host of the event.
“Marion Barry is from Ward 8,” Wiley said, mentioning the lone voice on the D.C. City Council to oppose the same-sex marriage legislation. Barry has appeared alongside Bishop Harry Jackson, Jr., a leading same-sex marriage opponent and prominent black voice, in downtown D.C. rallies held in Freedom Plaza.
“The black Church and the Black community have been characterized by some as being united in opposition against same-sex marriage,” said Rev. Christine Wiley, Dennis Wiley’s wife and co-pastor. “This could not be further from the truth. Because Covenant Baptist Church is a ‘beloved community’ with a long history of celebrating the richness of our diversity, we have gathered here today to reaffirm, in the immortal words of the late Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., that ‘injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.’”
While the press conference showcased several pro-gay marriage Black clergy, most of the gathered clergy were white, and represented congregations from more affluent wards in the city’s Northwest quadrant. Referenda in California and elsewhere have shown overwhelming majorities of black voters supporting the traditional definition of marriage.
The Rev. Dr. Luis León, Rector of St. John’s Episcopal Church on Lafayette Square and across from the White House, was one of five speakers endorsing the gay marriage declaration. Quoting from the book of Galatians that “We are all one in Christ Jesus,” León said that he was grateful for the diversity of the group.
The Rev. Luis León of St. John's Episcopal Church, Lafayette Square, (Center) was one of five clergy to speak in favor of same-sex marriage. While the press conference took place in Ward 8, most of the clergy present were from the city's northwest wards and not African American.
“Here we stand, offering ourselves as a photograph of God’s rich creation,” León said. A member of the steering committee of D.C. Clergy United for Marriage Equality, León was joined in signing the declaration by Washington, D.C.’s Episcopal Bishop, John Bryson Chane, retired Episcopal Bishop Jane Holmes Dixon and several Episcopal parish priests, including National Cathedral officials.
“In the Anglican Communion we are so divided on human sexuality issues, that can’t stop us from standing up for what we think is right and just,” said León. “I can’t speak for the Episcopal Church, only for myself. I fully believe in marriage equality.”
Some of the speakers expressed concerns about language used by those who oppose same-sex unions. “Last month, Councilmember Marion Barry threatened ‘civil war’ should the council pass a marriage equality bill,” said the Rev. Robert Hardies, Senior Minister of All Souls Unitarian Church, which sits along the city’s prominent church-lined 16th Street corridor, a few blocks north of St. John’s.
“Just last week Bishop Jackson called his bid to put this issue to a referendum a ‘declaration of war.’ I believe it is wrong to use the language of war to speak about a matter of love,” said Hardies.
Even though Hardies at one point made mention of “taking the issue to the people,” he and other clergy present strongly opposed the idea of a referendum.
“We don’t believe there should be a referendum, because when it comes to rights, there shouldn’t be a vote,” Hardies said. “There’s a difference between putting something to a vote and entering into honest dialog. We don’t want to put people’s rights in jeopardy.”
Prominent United Methodist clergy, including the Rev. Dean Snyder of Foundry United Methodist Church, as well as staff from the Wesley Theological Seminary and Metropolitan Memorial United Methodist Church and Asbury United Methodist Church, signed the declaration and many were on-hand for the event. However, only five featured speakers were made available for media interviews. Other clergy were quickly ushered into another room for a private reception at the conclusion of the press conference.
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