Same-Sex Marriage in Illinois: The Role of the Black Church

Illinois State House Capitol on a cloudy winter day - Springfield (state capitol series). The statue of Abraham Lincoln was d
Illinois State House Capitol on a cloudy winter day - Springfield (state capitol series). The statue of Abraham Lincoln was dedicated on October 5, 1918, the centennial of the first meeting of the Illinois General Assembly.

The Illinois House failed Friday to act on pending legislation that would have allowed same-sex couples in Illinois to marry. The bill had passed the Illinois Senate on Valentine's Day, Illinois Governor Pat Quinn had proudly promised to sign the bill into law, both of Illinois' United States senators enthusiastically endorsed the legislation, the speaker of the Illinois House, the Illinois attorney general, every major newspaper in Illinois, and a majority of Illinois' citizens supported the legislation.

Nonetheless, Representative Greg Harris, the sponsor of the legislation, declined at the last moment to call the bill for a vote. After many months of tireless work by many thousands of Illinois citizens, Harris, who is a hero on this issue, tearfully announced that he did not have the votes to enact the law because "several of my colleagues have indicated that they would not be willing to cast a vote on this bill today." And so the matter was shelved for another day.

How did this happen? Marriage for same-sex couples is a sharply partisan issue. Democrats overwhelmingly support it (69 percent in favor); Republicans overwhelmingly oppose it (27 percent in favor). It is also an ideological issue. Liberals overwhelmingly support it (80 percent in favor); conservatives overwhelmingly oppose it (28 percent in favor). Predictably, the vote in the Illinois Senate, which is controlled by Democrats, followed clear party/ideological lines. Only one Republican in the Illinois Senate voted in favor of the legislation, but it passed on a pretty much party-line vote of 34 to 21.

One might then have expected clear sailing in the Illinois House, where the Democrats hold a 71 to 47 majority. But it did not work out that way. By all accounts, a major reason for the disappointing outcome in the House was the opposition/hesitancy/anxiety of the House Black Caucus, which includes 20 African-American Democrats. Given the political makeup of the Illinois House, the House Black Caucus clearly had the numbers to dictate the outcome. And on Friday, the members of the House Black Caucus chose to derail the effort to legalize marriage for same-sex couples in Illinois.

Now, in light of what I noted earlier about the positions of Democrats and liberals on this issue, this should be surprising. Not only are African-Americans predominantly Democrats and liberals, but they are more Democratic and more liberal than any other racial or ethnic group in the nation. Although 43 percent of whites are Democrats, 83 percent of African-Americans are Democrats, and African-Americans are 20 percent more likely than whites to identify as liberal. One might therefore have expected the members of the House Black Caucus to lead the charge in favor of a right of same-sex couples to marry. That is, after all, the dominant position of both Democrats and liberals.

Moreover, given the long and historic struggle of African-Americans to achieve equality for themselves in the United States, it might have seemed obvious that African-American legislators would be especially sensitive to and supportive of the demand of gays and lesbians for equality under the law.

But that was not to be. The usual liberalism of the House Black Caucus apparently does not extend to protecting the equality rights of gays and lesbians. That they pulled the plug on same-sex marriage in Illinois is therefore both disappointing and perplexing.

The explanation for this apparent puzzle seems to rest less in the views of the members of the House Black Caucus themselves than in the politics of religion in the African-American community. The ministers of many of the African-American churches in Illinois turned this issue into a crusade. As the Chicago Sun-Times reported, the members of the House faced "a withering lobbying blitz against" the legislation from black ministers. The message of the ministers was direct: "Vote against us on this issue and we will defeat you in the next election." Faced with such pressure, members of the House Black Caucus caved, at least for the moment.

An interesting thing about African-Americans in the United States is that they are both the most liberal and the most religious racial or ethnic group in the nation. 84 percent of African-Americans describe themselves as very religious, compared to 63 percent of whites. For many members of the African-American Protestant churches, homosexuality is a sin and same-sex marriage an abomination. On this score, African-American Protestants are even more hostile to same-sex marriage than Catholics. Despite the strictures of institutional Catholicism, 50 percent of all Catholics now support same-sex marriage, compared to only 34 percent of African-American Protestants.

It is clear, then, that for a major segment of the African-American community, when it comes to gays and lesbians, religion trumps liberalism. It is, of course, the right of individuals in our society to follow and propound their own religious beliefs without government interference. But that is not the issue here. The issue here is whether those holding particular religious beliefs can legitimately use the authority of government to impose their religious beliefs on others who do not share them. "My God forbids this conduct so the government must forbid it" is not a legitimate basis for government action in the American constitutional system.

It is especially distressing that these African-American ministers would act in such clear disregard of the fundamental American principle of separation of church and state. "My God forbids this" was precisely the argument that white supremacists used to defend slavery, Jim Crow and especially anti-miscegenation laws that forbade blacks and whites to marry.

When white segregationists intoned that "God forbids the marriage of whites and blacks," civil rights leaders -- including African-American minister -- courageously stood up for the right of individuals to marry whomever they loved -- regardless of what others thought their God decreed. It is therefore particularly disheartening to see African-American ministers, who were once so eloquent in defending their own right to marry in the face of religious bigotry, now raising their voices so emphatically in order to deny that very same right to others.