Monday, May 22, 2006

Church, state and gay rights in the city of Washington

Churches, especially African American churches, play an important role in local politics in the District of Columbia -- the city of Washington. Our local politics are rooted in the Civil Rights Movement -- we got the current version of home rule in 1973 in large part because of the activism of the 1960s -- and churches were a major power base in the movement.

So anyone running for office in the District will make pilgrimages to various churches during the campaign. Except for the fact that the religious power brokers here are African American, the District is no different in this regard from most jurisdictions in the U.S. (I confess I find it ironic that in the United States, where the First Amendment to the Constitution prohibits the establishment of religion, churches have more political clout than they do in some nations with state-sponsored churches.)

However, the District also includes a very powerful gay community that is very active in local politics. There are two openly gay members of the City Council -- one elected citywide -- and any serious candidate for mayor, chair of the City Council, or one of the citywide at-large seats will seek the endorsement of the Gertrude Stein Democratic Club and other gay groups.

According to the May 11 Loose Lips column by James Jones in the Washington City Paper, Bishop Alfred A. Owens Jr., pastor of Greater Mount Calvary Holy Church, gave a sermon on Palm Sunday in which he apparently encouraged straight men to "praise God that they're straight" and made offensive remarks about gays using terms such as "faggot" and "sissy."

Bishop Owens is an honorary member of Mayor Anthony Williams's Interfaith Council -- an advisory body of religious leaders. According to Jones's story, Greater Mount Calvary has about 7,000 members.

On May 17, Mayor Williams threatened to remove Owens from the Council if he didn't apologize. So far Owens hasn't done so -- and in fact, he has apparently refused to talk to either the major or the press. According to the May 19 Loose Lips column, the bishop has addressed the issue from the pulpit, but not anywhere else.

Now the mayor is in a position to take a stand purely on principle -- he's not running for re-election -- and I won't be surprised if he makes good on his threat. But the candidates vying for his seat don't have that luxury -- they want both the church vote and the gay vote.

On the May 19 DC Politics Hour (podcast available in archives) on one of our local NPR affiliates, WAMU, City Council Member Vincent Orange -- a longshot candidate for mayor -- did a classic politician's bob and weave in an effort to avoid either condemning the preacher or offending the gay community. He mentioned freedom of religion while emphasizing how closely he has worked with Council Member Jim Graham on certain initiatives. Graham is gay, so those comments were intended to indicate Orange's general support for the gay community.

I haven't heard remarks by other candidates, but Washington Post columnist Colbert King noted in a May 13 column that mayoral hopefuls speaking at the Gertrude Stein Democratic Club "with varying degrees of passion, denounced the bishop's remarks. But to my recollection, not one of them criticized Owens personally, either by name or by title."

This can become an amusing spectacle -- watch the politicians squirm as reporters try to get them to criticize either a powerful local preacher or the gay community. And the fact that the gay vote is strong enough to get the mayor to condemn homophobic remarks is one of the many positive aspects of life in the District.

But the District's churches remain powerful, and while they tend to be more progressive than the white fundamentalist churches of the religious right, their degree of influence in local politics is still a matter of concern. It might be best to eliminate the Interfaith Council altogether and put responsible religious leaders on other advisory committees instead of having one focused on religion. And, frankly, I'd like to see my local politicians -- and the national ones, too -- take considered stands on the issues of the day instead of trying to be all things to all people.

Our local struggles over gay rights are tame compared with those in other states or the national ones -- see Diane Silver's post on the Senate Judiciary Committee approval of the gay marriage ban. But as a progressive jurisdiction, we in the District owe it to the rest of the country to set a good example. We can't pass a law allowing gay marriage -- the City Council might well support such a law, but Congress would unquestionably block it -- but we can refuse to tolerate offensive words and actions from persons in official positions.

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