Can the Anti-Gay Marriage Movement Bounce Back?

If so, in many states it will depend on black churches and their voters.

Anti-gay marriage petitioners.

Volunteers collect gay marriage repeal signatures in Bel Air, Md.

Photograph by David Weigel.

BALTIMORE—Leslie Lopes-Ruffin turned on the projector and pointed it high on the classroom wall. “We pointed it at a sheet last time,” she explained, “and people couldn’t see it.” The slideshow began, right next to a poster of President Obama, listing his accomplishments and famous quotes.

There’s not a liberal America and a conservative Americathere’s the United States of America.

Ruffin started clicking through her slides, and trained us—myself and a local minister, Monte Harris, Sr.—on how to overturn Maryland’s nascent gay marriage law. The governor signed it into law in March, but implementation was delayed until 2013, to give its enemies time to try and stop it. Rising Sun First Baptist Church is one of the full-time petition drop-off and training centers for the activists who want to put the law on the November ballot, and give voters a chance to overturn it.

The success of the repeal campaign will depend on black voters. This isn’t a secret. Proponents prefer not to talk about it. In March, an anonymous leaker published internal memos from the National Organization for Marriage that revealed a blunt, successful plan to “drive a wedge between gays and blacks.” Black support for California’s gay marriage ban was at least 58 percent, maybe as high as 70 percent. It was called the “Not a Civil Rights” project: Giving the traditional marriage fight an African-American face.

If this can still work, it will work in Maryland. Petitioners have until June 30 to hand in 57,000 signatures to put marriage on the November ballot. Getting enough signatures won’t be hard. But, once they do, they’ll have to win in a state that gave the 2008 Obama ticket 62 percent of the vote. Black voters made up 25 percent of the electorate that year. They were told, by Obama, that he believed “marriage is between a man and a woman.”

Now he’s telling them something different. It’s a little awkward. Monte Harris, my fellow trainee, works at two AME Zionist churches in the Baltimore suburbs.

“I’ve been battling this Obama thing on Facebook,” he said. “They say, ‘the Bible doesn’t say anything about homosexuality!’ And I type back to them, ‘What Bible are you reading? The Rick James Bible?’ ”

The president’s live TV “evolution” was a massive disappointment for Harris. Just one reason: Obama had cited the “golden rule” to explain himself. “They always want to throw that out,” said Harris. “They take it out of context. They’ll say, ‘the Bible says ‘love thy neighbor.’ Well, the Bible doesn’t say ‘make love to thy neighbor.’ ”

I visited Rising Sun on Tuesday, when relatively few people were picking up and delivering petitions. A few hours before the training session, I met one of the volunteers who’d gotten his circulator stripes a month earlier—Melvin Bilal, a University of Pennsylvania-educated lawyer and practicing Muslim.

“I was at work,” recalled Bilal, “and one of my friends asked me, ‘You see what your boy Obama did?’ I felt, immediately, like the decision was political. It made him look like a hypocrite.”

Some of the gay marriage skeptics I talked to were sticking with Obama. Bilal isn’t. “It’s impossible for someone to be a serious Christian and not support what God said,” he said. “This goes to the heart of creation, of man. I went door to door for him last time. I won’t vote for him this time, because of this. I’m going to look more closely at Romney. Romney’s family, his father, come out of that Rockefeller Republican tradition.” In the meantime, he’d collect signatures—the big haul would come up at the end of the month, when he took petitions to Baltimore’s Muslim Fun Day.

Bilal is the kind of voter the religious right would clone en masse—if they believed in human cloning. On Monday, the Washington Post’s new national poll found a mammoth swing in black support for gay marriage. Pre-Obama, in November, 58 percent of African Americans called it “unacceptable.” Post-Obama, the number fell to 37 percent. 

But just transpose those numbers to Maryland. Ninety-four percent of African Americans went for Obama-Biden in 2008. There’s a gulf here, black voters are picking their sides on the issue, and gay marriage foes are figuring out how to use it.

The tactics change from state to state, demographic to demographic. Last week, in New York, gay marriage foes successfully hounded State Sen. James Alesi into temporary retirement. (“I’m not dead yet,” he says.) He’d provided one of the four Republican votes for the state’s gay marriage law. He started stumping at Republican and Conservative Party events again. The support had dried up, completely, as it had for another one of his colleagues two months earlier.

“At the end of the day I did not want to be a Republican candidate that voted for marriage and lost,” he says. “I wanted to be a Republican who voted for marriage and won. I probably could have won the general election, but I couldn’t get on the ballot. And even if I had, it would have handed the marriage equality people a loss in a Republican primary.”

There’s a ratchet effect here—it gets harder every year to hold back the advocates of   gay marriage. Four years ago, social conservatives didn’t have to worry about Republicans getting behind same-sex unions. Now, they have to primary them when they stray. Has Barack Obama moved the needle with black voters? Maybe. Maryland is where they will figure it out.

Before I got back to the church in Baltimore, I toured more of the sites where the Maryland Marriage Alliance—tied loosely to NOM—was getting its numbers. In Bel Air, three volunteers—two white, one black—parked outside a Maryland Vehicle Association office with plastic tubs full of petitions. Paul Feryus did most of the talking, boiling down the legalese about HB438 and “petitioning to refer the bill” into a short pitch.

“Have you seen the petition on marriage and Maryland families?” he asked.

I stuck around for 45 minutes. The first 30 were slow. This was Harford County, Baltimore exurbs that gave John McCain 58 percent of the vote. They’d been asked to collect a few thousand signatures, and try to get them in by May 31. They were 75 percent or so of the way there, despite the stream of younger motorists walking by and declining to sign. “You can see whether folks are interested or not pretty quickly,” said Feryus, as a shaggy-haired kid with a Phish shirt glowered and ignored the petition table.

Things soon picked up, but the signatories were all white. “I’m out of state as of yesterday,” said a middle-aged voter. “I’m still registered here, though.” Feryus assured him he could sign. One voter scribbled down his information and asked what else they had. “Anti-tax? Anything? Anything you’ve got against Marty [Martin O’Malley, the Democratic governor].”

That’s part of the anti-gay marriage coalition. I met the rest of it at Rising Sun First Baptist. On the way to the training room, I passed two paintings of an African Jesus Christ, and a choir room where the icebreaker conversation was all about (gay?) marriage. (“CNN tried to talk to me,” grumbled one parishioner.) Before the meeting, we had a visitor: Pastor and State Del. Emmett C. Burns, one of the most outspoken advocates of the referendum.

Once he left, Lopes-Ruffin walked us through an hour of petition do’s and don’ts, sharing the goals of the drive. They needed 57,000 signatures, but they wanted to hand in 150,000 as a show of strength—and they had 33,000 so far. They wanted 1,000 organizations, of all different faiths, to organize against it. They were shooting for 42 organizations, at least, in every county. Many would be centered around churches.

The presentation ended with an inspirational image, a sun-bleached highway heading somewhere pleasant.

“This is only the first step,” said our trainer. “In November, we’ve got to get the souls to the polls!”