Marriage battle issue not an automatic Bush vote

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, November 3, 2004

Leaders of morally conservative but traditionally Democratic black churches are bucking the conventional wisdom that a vote against gay marriage will automatically be reflected at the top of the ticket.

Veteran civil rights leader the Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth, pastor of Greater New Light Missionary Baptist Church in Cincinnati, sees no conflict in voting against gay marriage as a state issue and for Democrat John Kerry as president.

Nationally, Shuttlesworth is less worried about marriage than about people without health insurance or unable to pay their utility bills.

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''To me that's one of the biggest sins in the world,'' he said. ''God sent Jesus to help the needy.''

Ohio is one of an unprecedented 11 states where voters will decide on adopting constitutional amendments banning gay marriage. Ohio's proposal goes farther than many, denying legal recognition for any unmarried couple.

Cincinnati voters also will decide whether to repeal the only city charter amendment of its kind, which forbids any anti-discrimination ordinance based on sexual orientation.

In Ohio, both Roman Catholic and black Protestant ministers have had news conferences urging support of the constitutional amendment, which will be Issue 1 on the statewide ballot.

Shuttlesworth, who marched alongside Martin Luther King Jr. for the right to vote, has appeared in campaign literature and told his congregation to support the gay marriage ban and oppose repealing the Cincinnati ballot measure against gay rights.

Clergy cannot advocate directly for or against a partisan candidate from the pulpit, but there's no such restrictions on an issues campaign, said David Bositis, researcher for the Washington-based Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, which focuses on issues concerning blacks.

The Joint Center's national poll released this month showed that Bush had doubled his support among blacks, to 18 percent from 9 percent in 2000. That probably has more to do with Bush's funding for faith-based initiative than gay marriage, Bositis said. And Kerry still has a wide lead, with 69 percent of blacks saying they'll vote for him.

Bishop Eugene Ward, pastor of Greater Love Missionary Baptist Church in Cleveland, had a rally in support of Issue 1 last month. He said he has not endorsed a presidential candidate.

''The church has been quiet too long,'' said Ward, who is black. ''We're living in a sinful society and it's becoming more blatant.''

Meanwhile, about 135 United Methodist ministers and Jewish rabbis have vocally opposed the amendment, with some even e-mailing parishioners.

Bush supports a federal constitutional amendment banning gay marriage. Kerry opposes gay marriage but says it should not be in the constitution.

Issue 1 backers have said they did not put the measure on the ballot to help Bush in Ohio, where gay marriage is already illegal.

Republicans have been trying to find a wedge issue that will break blacks off from their support for Kerry and get them voting Republican, said Todd Donovan, a Western Washington University political science professor who studies how ballot initiatives affect voter turnout.

''This one doesn't seem to be doing it,'' he said.

Recent polls in Ohio do show a net gain for Bush since the marriage amendment was certified for the ballot, although those gains don't appear to be among black voters. Donovan said it might be the only true tossup state remaining among the 11 states with gay marriage on the ballot.

The Rev. Otha Gilyard, pastor of the predominantly black Shiloh Baptist Church in Columbus, will vote yes on the gay marriage ban and for Kerry. But he won't be talking about either one from the pulpit.

''I don't make the assumption that everyone in the congregation would necessarily feel the way I do,'' Gilyard said.

''I believe in the separation of church and state. With churches now almost tying themselves to candidates, it makes it difficult for them to promote that.''

Carrie Spencer is reporter with the Associated Press in Ohio who focuses on state issues.