In US swing state, same-sex marriage debate simmers

Posted at 10/07/12 6:21 PM

FAYETTEVILLE, North Carolina - Derrick Montgomery is a pastor from the US Bible Belt, a region where religion has traditionally had a strong influence on politics. But he doesn't fit the conservative stereotype.

Montgomery, the 30-year-old head of the Blessed Family of God Church in Fayetteville, North Carolina is an openly gay African American.

He is also disappointed. North Carolina, a key battleground ahead of the November 6 US presidential election, recently became the latest US state to constitutionally ban same-sex couples from tying the knot.

"I was mad that it passed," Montgomery said of the measure, which garnered 61 percent of the vote on May 8, reflecting a deep divide that ultimately could help decide whether the state swings Democrat or Republican in November.

Polls show President Barack Obama and Republican rival Mitt Romney running neck and neck in North Carolina, where the Democrat won a narrow victory in 2008, beating John McCain by just three-tenths of a percentage point.

Concern about the economy has eclipsed social issues like gay marriage, but it's still something residents in Fayetteville, dotted with churches and Christian schools, factor in as they prepare to cast their ballots.

Obama's historic endorsement of same-sex marriage, announced the day after North Carolinians shut the door on the matter, was welcomed by Montgomery.

But for others it is a sore spot, as was the noisy support for gay rights issues at the last month's Democratic National Convention held in Charlotte, a few hours' drive away.

"If I say I'm a Christian that means I'm trying to be as Christ-like as possible and if the Bible says homosexuality is an abomination, then I should stand completely against that, wholeheartedly -- period," said Chris Sain.

"And he does not," added the 45-year-old army veteran, referring to Obama.

Sain attends Fayetteville's Berean Baptist Church, whose pastor sparked a scandal this spring when, during a sermon titled "Vote for Marriage: One Man. One Woman," he told fathers to "crack" the wrists of sons showing effeminate behavior.

"Man up, give him a good punch," Pastor Sean Harris said, to laughter from the congregation, according to a video of the sermon during which he also urged parents to rein in their daughters if they start acting "too butch."

He issued a retraction "of any and all words that suggest that child abuse is appropriate for any and all types of behaviors including (but not limited to) effeminacy and sexual immorality of all types."

Harris, who in the statement maintained the need to define marriage as between one man and one woman, declined to revisit the issue when approached by AFP after a recent Sunday service.

Colleague Bill Sturm, an associate pastor, acknowledged Harris could have phrased his words differently but stood by the point he was making.

"If he wasn't perceived as saying that you should physically abuse seemingly effeminate boys or masculine girls, then it never would have been an issue," he said.

"Every conservative evangelical church in America would say homosexuality is wrong and that you ought to teach your boys to be masculine and your girls to be feminine."

Asked more broadly about the impact of same-sex versus traditional marriage on voters, Sturm said the matter had been taken care of with the amendment.

"The issue of homosexual marriage, for lack of a better term, has been laid to rest in North Carolinians' minds," he said.

But if the National Organization for Marriage is to be believed, the issue still holds substantial political capital for Republicans -- especially among North Carolina's traditionally conservative African American community.

The lobbying group spent thousands of dollars on a North Carolina radio ad featuring African American pastor Patrick Wooden.

"President Obama has turned his back on the values of our community with his strong endorsement of the homosexual movement... Join me in saying 'no more' to President Obama," Wooden says in the ad, which ran in August.

Kerry Haynie, associate professor at North Carolina's Duke University, said Wooden is somewhat of an outlier.

"There will be many African Americans who will say they disagree with Obama's stance on that issue but who will show up and enthusiastically vote for him on November 6," Haynie said.

"There's a tradition in the black church where the minister is seen as the leader of the congregation -- but the minister is not a dictator," he added.

"How folks typically approach that is that they listen, and if it fits they put it on and if it doesn't, they leave it."

Haynie's analysis seemed to reflect the mindset at a bustling weekend folk festival in Fayetteville's quaint downtown.

There, several African Americans in the crowd acknowledged privately they were disappointed by Obama's stance on gay marriage but would cast ballots for him regardless.

Others were more outspoken.

"I'm going to vote for Obama," said Arthur Glover, a 58-year-old truck driver. "I try to let everybody live the way they want to... as long as it's not affecting my life."

Surveys suggest many more Americans agree with him.

According to a Pew Research Center poll released in April, 47 percent say they favor allowing gay marriage, compared to 43 percent who do not.

Four years ago, in contrast, 51 percent were opposed and only 39 percent in favor. In 2004, 60 percent were opposed and just 31 percent supported gay and lesbian couples to wed.

Montgomery, for one, was optimistic about the future despite being told by another local pastor that "somebody needs to teach you a lesson" in the run-up to a gay pride event this summer.

"He was the only individual that approached me directly, which said a lot about the community here... we are growing in respect for each other," he noted. "We just agree to disagree."

As for who will make it to the White House?

"I'd be surprised if he is not re-elected," Montgomery said of Obama.

But others caution against such confidence.

Retiree Pat Capino, sitting on a bench at the Cross Creek Mall, voted for Obama in 2008 but is going with Romney this time around.

"To each his own," she said of gay marriage, dismissing it as a non-issue and pointing instead to the country's economic woes -- including high unemployment. Obama "didn't make it any better," she said.

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