A House Divided

Page 7 of 9

"It's like Martin King used to say," he recalls. "ŒToo often the church is the taillight and not the headlight.'"

There are, increasingly, bright lights advocating a gay-equality position from within the black clergy. Peter Gomes, chaplain of Harvard University, is gay, out and active. Pastors in New York City, Chicago and Philadelphia have, like Reynolds, woven the message into their ministry. In Stone Mountain, Georgia, the Reverend Kenneth Samuel has pursued an actively pro-gay program in his traditional Baptist church over the past year -- and lost more than 2,000 members as a result.

Freedom to Marry, a New York-based advocacy group, has led a focused outreach to black faith communities over the past two years, and recently met with leaders of National Baptist USA -- which represents more than eight million people -- to work toward articulating a position on the marriage issue. "It's a tough political climate for African-American ministers and religious leaders," says Freedom's Samiya Bashir. "They've been targeted by a lot of political groups as a hot ticket. But now a number of black leaders and faith ministers are standing up and saying, ŒWell, wait, what we need to do is look at our people in our congregation and ask, What are their needs? What are the issues they're asking us about? A lot of them are trying to clean house and come to their own conclusions without the media, the activists, the politicians watching. But the fact that they're even talking about it is just huge."

In Colorado, the black church has been established since 1865, when Zion Baptist Church was built in Five Points. Reynolds is currently the only African-American clergyman to make sexual equality a pillar of his ministry. There are no active black pastors in the membership of the Colorado Clergy for Equality in Marriage, a consortium of one hundred Christian and Jewish leaders from across the Front Range. The Greater Denver Ministerial Alliance, an aggregate of 65 black pastors, has yet to express a collective view on homosexuality.

That leaves Reynolds going it alone -- from perhaps the most unlikely place in the United States to launch an equality campaign.

A little more than a decade ago, Colorado Springs was the epicenter of the debate over Colorado's anti-gay Amendment 2. Now, Reynolds's home town is at the epicenter of the national debate over same-sex marriage, a discussion that has spread concentrically outward since November 2003, when the Supreme Court of Massachusetts upheld same-sex couples' right to legally wed. In February 2004, U.S. Representative Musgrave introduced her Federal Marriage Amendment, which would amend the U.S. Constitution -- for only the 28th time in the country's history -- to ban gay marriage. Senator Wayne Allard brought a similar bill in the Senate. Both died during fairly early stages of their journey through Congress, but Musgrave and Allard have each suggested that they plan to revive their bills this year, newly fortified with provisions that would strip same-sex couples of most of the benefits of civil unions.

To some extent, though, Musgrave and Allard are merely reflecting the values of their constituents in Colorado Springs, where five FM Christian stations blare at all hours from the radio dial and a subscription to The Gazette newspaper comes with a free Bible. The religious and the political have intertwined along a continuum of conservatism in Colorado Springs since the 1970s, when city leaders began recruiting right-wing groups as a way to prop up a sagging agricultural economy. The city is now home to 100 evangelical Christian organizations, including Focus on the Family, the most famous, and powerful, conservative-Christian empire in the country.

Earlier this year, Focus announced it had launched its own campaign for a referendum that would place the issue of a gay-marriage ban before Colorado voters next November. (Colorado already has a Defense of Marriage statute, which defines marriage as between a man and a woman.) The organization, whose representatives did not respond to interview requests for this story, is also working to pass similar measures in fifteen other states.

But there have been defiant, pro-gay-equality acts of late in the most conservative pocket of Colorado, a state that's recently made moves to shake off echoes of its former hate-state status. In January, the Senate advanced a bill that would add sexual orientation to Colorado's anti-discrimination law (the state is currently one of 36 without such a measure); the bill is currently being reviewed by the Senate Appropriations Committee. And in February, the Senate defeated Springs senator Doug Lamborn's proposal that Colorado not recognize civil unions from other states. Last year, Sara Tomas, a young woman from the Springs, sued Palmer High School in federal court after school administrators refused to allow notices about the Gay/Straight Alliance, a student group Tomas founded, to be broadcast over the school P.A. In February, two lesbian couples sued the city over a 2003 law that revoked the benefits they had previously received as city employees. And after the defeat of the FMA, fifty gay and lesbian couples participated in a symbolic wedding at Pikes Peak Metropolitan Community Church, which was attended by the city's vice-mayor.

KEEP WESTWORD FREE... Since we started Westword, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Denver, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Laura Bond
Contact: Laura Bond