Religious leaders urge gay-marriage support

A Baptist leader called for social justice, an Episcopalian insisted that all couples get equal treatment, and a Lutheran -- citing Washington's long history of civil rights leadership -- exhorted other religious leaders across the state to stand up in support of same-sex marriages.

They gathered yesterday with 100 Buddhists, Unitarians, Methodists, Muslims, Presbyterians, Jews and representatives of other faiths to urge the repeal of a 1998 state law defining marriage as the union of a man and a woman, and to decry President Bush's attempt to ban gay and lesbian unions within the U.S. Constitution.

"I see this clearly as a justice issue," said the Rev. Robert Taylor of Seattle's St. Mark's Cathedral. "The president of our country has said he would like to enshrine in our Constitution the fact that some people should be denied equal rights. Quite frankly, this is breathtaking in its disregard for the freedom and justice our Constitution sets forth."

Taylor, one of the highest-ranking openly gay deans in the national Episcopal Church, was one of 160 religious leaders from Blaine to Vancouver, Wash., who signed a statement casting the struggle for same-sex marriage in a light similar to African Americans' fight for civil rights. Many marched yesterday from Plymouth Congregational Church to the King County Administration Building to present it to government officials.

"Just as religious leaders before us have spoken to end slavery and ensure equal rights to all persons regardless of gender or race, so we oppose any legislation that discriminates," said the statement, which called the denial of same-sex marriage rights "a national shame."

But the group was as notable for its skin tone -- nearly all white -- as for the force of its rhetoric. In Atlanta, 30 black pastors rallied to oppose same-sex unions and disputed the notion that gay marriage shared the history of their struggle for equality.

"I don't see this as anything near what blacks went through," said Ken Hutcherson, a black pastor at Antioch Bible Church in Redmond, who like many evangelical church leaders was not present at the Seattle gathering. "I can never live the policy 'don't ask, don't tell,' so it's offensive to me to say this is similar to what we went through. It doesn't even come close. We don't see it as a civil rights issue. We see it as a sexual behavior issue."

One of the few African American pastors who attended the Seattle gathering was the Rev. Shayne Flowers of All Pilgrims Church, who said later that the issue came down to one's understanding of homosexuality. Flowers, who is gay, believes being a lesbian was inborn, not a matter of choice.

"I do think of this as a civil rights issue," she said. "I didn't wake up one morning and decide to be African American, just as I didn't wake up and decide to be a woman, and I didn't wake up and decide to be gay. When I hear my African American brothers and sisters say otherwise, it's very alienating to me, like I'm choosing to be discriminated against."

Washington's legislators are in recess for the rest of the year, so it is unlikely they will take any immediate action on the state's Defense of Marriage law. But on March 8, the Northwest Women's Law Center filed suit on behalf of six same-sex couples, asserting the law violates the state's constitution. A response is due from county prosecutors Sunday.

Lisa Stone, executive director of the law center, said whatever the initial ruling, she expected the case would take at least a year to resolve.

Around the country, an initial flurry of activity heralding same-sex marriages has been met with a backlash. Under pressure from Oregon Attorney General Hardy Myers, Benton County, which had planned to issue same-sex marriage licenses starting today, reversed itself. Yesterday, a judge in New Mexico stopped the Sandoval County clerk from issuing licenses to gay and lesbian couples.