By TOM MCPARLAND
ANNAPOLIS (February 15, 2012)—Delmon Coates and Donte' L. Hickman Sr., both black pastors, flanked Gov. Martin O'Malley recently as they argued that allowing same-sex marriage would extend equal rights to citizens, while not impinging on the theology of churches.
"For me, this is a question of public policy, not theology, and as such, we should not ask, 'What are my personal beliefs and biblical understandings about marriage and homosexuality, and how, then, can I impose those beliefs on society,'" Coates told two House committees.
For O'Malley, who has spent substantial political energy this year pushing same-sex marriage, Coates and Hickman personify one of the most complex storylines in the contentious debate.
While O'Malley and bill proponents have found public support from leading voices in the black community, including prominent civil rights leaders and clergy, same-sex marriage legislation faces considerable opposition from both voters and groups of legislators from predominantly black districts, where religious influence is strong.
The conflict is likely to play out this week in the full House of Delegates as lawmakers debate the same-sex marriage bill in the chamber where similar legislation died last year.
A January Gonzales Research and Marketing Strategies Inc. poll, which included 194 blacks across the state, found that only 33 percent of them favored the legalization of same-sex marriage, an 8 percentage point decrease from a similar poll last year.
Some say the numbers are reflective of attitudes toward homosexuality from some in the black community.
Bill co-sponsor Delegate Shawn Z. Tarrant, D-Baltimore, said gay blacks have traditionally not identified themselves as homosexual or part of a larger gay community.
"That, to me, is the real issue, that you have same-sex couples and people who identify themselves as gay in the black community that don't share that, their families don't embrace it, and that they don't push to be embraced," Tarrant said.
In a city lacking strong organization on either side of the issue, many of his constituents are indifferent toward same-sex marriage, he said.
Prince George's County, on the other hand, is home to one of Maryland's largest blocs of black voters and a very active circuit of faith communities that oppose the legislation.
"We've got a huge faith-based community," said Delegate Jay Walker, D-Prince George's, and a bill opponent.
"They haven't asked for much during the six years I've been here. They haven't asked for many things at all, and this one, they are clearly asking, 'Protect our values in regard to same-sex marriage,'" Walker said.
Predominantly black churches, Tarrant said, have become a major political force in the same-sex marriage conversation, particularly in Prince George's, because they offer Democratic politicians a venue to reach large numbers of black voters from varying economic backgrounds.
"It can't be a situation where you tell the black churches when they can or cannot get involved in the issue," Tarrant said. "You forced them into getting involved when you made it an issue for the legislature, because any time the governor's running for office, he's going through black churches."
Delegate Dereck E. Davis, D-Prince George's, while acknowledging the "overwhelming majority" of his constituents oppose the bill, was quick to deflect blame from Prince George's delegates, saying the vote last year would have split the county's delegation down the middle.
"It was pretty close to 50-50," said Davis, an opponent of the bill. "So you're probably talking, I don't know, in the area of seven or eight, probably eight African-American delegates who were going to vote against it. There's no way eight delegates can kill a bill."
While some advocates have used civil rights rhetoric in promoting same-sex marriage, lawmakers and advocates on both sides are wary of that language being taken too far.
"There are different definitions of civil rights. I'm saying that. I agree with that, but thinking that these are African-Americans' civil rights, comparing them to the civil rights that we had as a race, I don't think that's in the same ballpark as us," Walker said.
A key difference, some say, is that gay people are able to hide their sexual orientation, an opportunity not afforded to blacks.
"We are concerned that people don't confuse the difference," Tarrant said.
"The difference is when you're African-American, there's nothing you can do to prevent somebody from knowing that you're African-American," he said.
There are, however, many similarities between the two groups that, some leaders say, unite them.
Wade Henderson, president and chief executive officer of the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, wrote an opinion piece earlier this month in an attempt to "lay the foundation" for the same-sex marriage bill, in which he said blacks and the gay and lesbian community share the goals of civil rights and equality.
"I want to challenge the assumption that somehow African-Americans are not supportive of marriage equality," Henderson said in a phone interview.
He stressed a widespread acceptance of the gay community by blacks, who share a history of struggling to achieve their own civil rights.
"African-Americans are for equal rights for everyone, and that includes the LGBT community," Henderson said.
Ben Jealous, president and chief executive officer of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and an active proponent of same-sex marriage, gave the keynote speech at last month's Lesbian and Gay Rights Task Force conference in Baltimore in which he called for unity of leaders across the lines of race, gender and sexual orientation.
The NAACP's position has rankled some in the black community.
"I think people feel that (the organization has) lost touch with their roots, and this seems to be proof positive of that," Walker said.
Attitudes of blacks in Maryland are consistent with statistics from other states where support for same-sex marriage bills has lagged.
For example, when California passed Proposition 8, a 2008 ballot measure that banned same-sex marriage, Associated Press exit polls showed that seven out of 10 black voters favored the ban. The California ban has been overturned in federal court.