Clenard Childress
Civil rights is not the same as same sex rights
The highjacking of a movement
By Clenard Childress
December 15, 2009

As an African American who has known both the pain and heartbreak of a centuries-long struggle for equality in this nation as well as the joy and exhilaration felt that we could now say that race was no longer a barrier to the highest office in the land resulting in the election of President Barrack Obama last November, you can bet I pay attention when I hear of a new battle for "civil rights" in the United States. The rights of black Americans, earned through a bloody civil war; the enactment of four separate amendments to our Federal Constitution; thousands of federal court decisions; and millions of hours at the "back of the bus," were not gained easily or quickly.

And so I know that my gay American friends are perplexed when they hear that fully 70 percent of African Americans in this nation oppose what they unfairly characterize as their own "civil rights" struggle — to gain lawful recognition for same sex marriage. It is only fair that we explain.

We have to be honest if we are to have a dialogue. Equating the current same sex marriage effort being waged by gays and lesbians and their supporters is, quite frankly, insulting to most African Americans and in some ways trivializes our long and painful struggle. While most every African American sympathizes with the harsh treatment of gay and lesbians by those who have hatred and anger in their hearts, the histories of our struggles are not comparable. And so if we are to have a conversation, please don't start by insulting us.

As a group of influential African American leaders expressed to President Obama in an open letter just this past July, "Same-sex marriage is not a civil right. The laws enacted by Congress during a century of struggle for equal rights for African Americans were intended to eliminate discrimination on the basis of race, not on the basis of an individual's sexual preferences or personal behavior." Indeed, every society, every culture, every nation in all of recorded history, including every single time the people have been asked to cast their votes in the United States, has up until this point defined marriage as between one man and one woman.

It is also important if you are to better understand the nature of African American opposition to same sex marriage that you also understand that our faith and our civic duty are intertwined. "Separation of church and state" arguments do not hold water in the black community. We understand that if not for the strength of leaders like the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr., Malcolm X, Adam Clayton Powell, Jr. and scores of others, our struggle would have been longer and more painful. Black churches were championing rights for our flock fully two hundred years before the Civil War.

So what is the nature of our opposition?

As Stanford University law professor and author Richard Thompson Ford correctly points out, "Same-sex marriage would transform an institution that currently defines two distinctive sex roles — husband and wife — by replacing those different halves with one sex-neutral role — spouse. Sure, we could call two married men 'husbands' and two married women 'wives,' but the specific role for each sex that now defines marriage would be lost."

It is those cherished roles and that family unit that we have worked so hard to preserve at worship services, church suppers, Bible study and a broad range of family-centered activities taking place from rural Mississippi to urban Chicago and every point to the north, south, east and west that we now see threatened. We do not see bigotry in our cause to protect those family values. In fact, we do not oppose gay rights. We just do not believe that providing for those rights in the law for employment purposes and civil unions calls for the abolition of the traditional recognition of marriage as between one man and one woman.

In that same summer letter to the President signed by Niger Innis of the Congress on Racial Equality and others, they stated, "We believe that the central domestic problem we face is the disintegration of marriage. Changing the definition of marriage will have many unintended consequences, which will hurt generations to come. If one redefines marriage, then the family is redefined. If the family is redefined then the nature of parenting must also be redefined."

We will work to preserve the family and protect our children. It is what we have always done.

© Clenard Childress


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Clenard Childress

Rev. Dr. Clenard H. Childress, Jr., is the senior pastor of The New Calvary Baptist Church in Montclair, NJ. He is the founder of the website and president of Life Education And Resource Network, Northeast. LEARN is the largest African-American pro-life group in the US... (more)


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