Black Legislators Stall Marriage Amendment in Georgia

I find it interesting that I didn’t see this story reported in the AJC first.

Black Legislators Stall Marriage Amendment in Georgia

(Emphasis is mine.)

Published: March 3, 2004

ATLANTA, March 2 — Georgia’s headlong rush to block gay marriages through a constitutional amendment has been stalled, for the moment, by an unlikely group of legislators: black members of the House of Representatives, many of them church deacons and ministers who already support the state’s laws banning same-sex marriage.

Last week, they provided 39 of 50 no votes and abstentions that helped the measure fall 3 votes short of the 120 needed for passage.

The bill, which requires a two-thirds majority to appear on the ballot this November, may be reintroduced in the Democratic-controlled House as early as Thursday. The measure has already passed the Senate, which is dominated by Republicans, despite no votes from all 10 black members.

“In my 30 years in the legislature, I don’t think I’ve seen a vote so close and so impassioned,” said Representative Calvin Smyre, chairman of the House Rules Committee, who is black.

The battle over gay marriage here has put African-American lawmakers in a difficult position with voters and placed them in stark contrast to their white Democratic colleagues, most of whom have joined Republicans in calling for a constitutional bulwark against same-sex marriage.

Many constituents, including their hometown church leaders, have been clamoring for them to approve the measure, but the state’s Legislative Black Caucus has largely come to see it as denigrating a minority while playing into the hands of conservative Republicans seeking to spark a large turnout of their base in November.

“I’m a pastor and I don’t support gay marriage, but I resent people playing political football with our religious beliefs,” said Representative Ron Sailor Jr., a Democrat whose suburban Atlanta district contains some of the state’s largest and most conservative black churches.

As nearly two dozen states move to ban same-sex marriage through constitutional amendments, the political drama in Georgia offers a window into how similar battles might play out. In the Mississippi House of Representatives, which passed a similar bill on Monday, only 17 legislators voted against the measure, all of them black.

“At the national level and in states like Massachusetts and Georgia, African-American leaders have been pretty clear in their opposition to these kinds of constitutional amendments,” said Seth Kilbourn, national field director for the Human Rights Campaign, a gay rights group in Washington. “No matter how they feel about marriage for same-sex couples, they don’t want to write into our governing documents laws that treat one group of people different from another. They’ve seen this country go down that road before.”

In Georgia, a deeply religious and socially conservative state that passed a law banning same-sex marriage in 1996, the opposition of so many black lawmakers was not expected. Sadie Fields, chairman of the Christian Coalition of Georgia, said she was furious when several black representatives switched sides at the last minute on Thursday night.

“I think some of these legislators are going to have a lot to answer for come this fall,” Ms. Fields said. “If I was African-American, I would be furious that homosexuals are comparing what they want to do with civil rights.”

In interviews with more than a dozen black legislators, most were reluctant to characterize their position as a stand against discrimination. Like many of those who oppose a constitutional ban, Representative Earnest Williams of Stone Mountain said comparisons between the struggle for black civil rights and the pursuit of gay marriage were disingenuous.

“You just can’t equate sexual orientation to racial discrimination,” Mr. Williams said. “You can make a choice of who you want in your bedroom, but you can’t choose your skin color.”

Even so, some who oppose gay marriage — and opposition on that point was nearly unanimous — said the idea of amending the Constitution to restrict the aspirations of a group of people was troubling. Representative Georganna Sinkfield of Atlanta cited previous state laws that upheld slavery, curtailed voting rights and outlawed marriage between blacks and whites.

“What I see in this is hate,” Ms. Sinkfield said, standing outside the ornate House chambers between votes. “I’m a Christian, but if we put this in the Constitution, what’s next? People with dark hair? You’re opening the floodgates for people to promote their own prejudice.”

For the most part, black elected officials, at least publicly, have portrayed their opposition as a matter of political pragmatism. Conservative Republicans, they say, are using the issue as a wedge between Democrats and rural whites, and as a way to send religious conservatives to the voting booths in November.

“This whole thing is designed to whip up a frenzy to get people to the polls,” said Senator Ed Harbison, chairman of the Georgia Legislative Black Caucus. “We have to see this for what it really is.”

In their lobbying campaign, caucus leaders have told potential defectors that a yes vote on the amendment could lead to a Republican takeover of the House and strip black Georgians of their voice in the General Assembly. Once firmly Democratic, both the Senate and the governorship were lost to the Republicans two years ago. Every seat in the House and Senate is up for election in November.

“If we’re a minority in the House, we will have no power. Zero,” said Representative Tyrone Brooks, who heads the Georgia Association of Black Elected Officials. “This is not about your personal beliefs. It’s about a political ballgame the Republicans kicked off.”

Not all black lawmakers are against an amendment. There was one yes vote on Thursday, and eight lawmakers stayed away from the chambers that evening. In recent days, as the pressure has mounted, a handful of African-Americans have begun to waver.

Representative Sharon Beasley-Teague of Atlanta said she did not see the need for an amendment but the barrage of protests, including a large demonstration at the Capitol on Monday, helped change her mind.

“You can’t even leave a message at my office, the voice mail is so jammed with people saying it’s Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve,” she said.

I do believe I’m going to send some messages thanking them.

Current Mood: 🙂impressed
Cyn is Rick's wife, Katie's Mom, and Esther & Oliver's Mémé. She's also a professional geek, avid reader, fledgling coder, enthusiastic gamer (TTRPGs), occasional singer, and devoted stitcher.
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