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Minnesota's black community is becoming the latest flashpoint in the battle over an amendment that would ban same-sex marriage, with the president of the national NAACP traveling to Minnesota Monday to urge black voters to reject the measure.
A number of conservative black churches have lined up in favor of the amendment, but NAACP President Ben Jealous on Monday said that "the notion that this state would create an amendment to its constitution to revoke a human right should send a shudder down the spine of all of us."
In other states, supporters of traditional marriage have relied on strong backing from blacks to pass measures against same-sex marriage. Minnesotans for Marriage, the primary group backing the amendment, has worked hard at recruiting churches and has particularly targeted blacks with billboards around the Twin Cities that feature a handsome young black bride and groom, along with a plea to vote for the amendment.
The Rev. Jerry McAfee, president of the Minnesota State Baptist Convention, said the plea is one he'll relay to his followers.
"My plan today is to vote yes, direct my people to vote yes," McAfee said.
Meanwhile, amendment opponents here are taking unprecedented steps to pull black voters firmly into their camp, in part by casting the amendment as a civil rights issue.
Jealous warned Monday that Minnesotans are in danger of joining a shift from an era of using constitutions to "expand rights, to using constitutions to restrict rights."
Minnesota's black population is relatively small, but it could prove pivotal in a fight that both sides believe will come down to the narrowest of margins.
Minnesotans United for All Families has recruited black churches as coalition members and thrust prominent black leaders to the forefront of campaign events.
But despite the push by the NAACP, many black faith leaders remain firmly supportive of the amendment.
"It is not a political issue anymore. It's a spiritual issue in which we do believe and uphold what the word of God tells us," said Bishop Richard Howell, pastor at Shiloh Temple International Ministries in Minneapolis. "Certainly, we're not homophobic by any means. We understand the great divide here is Scripture and not politics."
Supporters want to add language to the state Constitution defining marriage solely as the union of a man and woman. Minnesota law already forbids same-sex marriage, but advocates say that lawsuits and legislative proposals could change that.
Similar marriage amendments have bitterly divided blacks across the country. President Obama broke with many black religious leaders in May when he became the first sitting president to voice support for same-sex marriage. Soon after, the NAACP adopted a similar position in support, a move that upset some board members and prompted one to resign.
The issue is one that has split the religious community in Minnesota as well. The Rev. Oliver White, of Grace Community United Church of Christ in St. Paul, lost so much of his congregation after voicing support for same-sex marriage that his church shut down.
Jeff Martin, president of the NAACP's St. Paul chapter, said the fight has caused him to rethink his home state. "I thought that Minnesota, and especially St. Paul, was a place where people would be judged by the content of character, not the color of their skin or who they fall in love with." Defeating the amendment, he said, is "about basic human dignity. Voting no on this amendment tells the state we're standing up for everyone's rights, for everyone's freedoms."
A change from 2008
Black leaders like Jealous are taking a much different tack than in 2008, when California passed a constitutional measure blocking same-sex marriage. That year, black voters in California came out in droves for President Obama but voted just as strongly to support the constitutional ban.
According to exit polling, fully 70 percent of black voters supported the amendment that year -- the largest percent of any racial group.
Jealous said that amendment opponents, who were well-funded and chock full of celebrity endorsements, largely ignored the black vote.
"Marriage equality organizations learned a lot, that they had to engage the black community much earlier on," Jealous said.
Democratic U.S. Rep. Keith Ellison joined Jealous on Monday in trying to unite the local black community, saying the state should stay out of defining who can marry.
"At the end of the day, we say the Pledge of Allegiance and say, 'and liberty and justice for all,'" said Ellison, who is running for re-election in the state's Fifth Congressional District. "I am not aware of any exceptions at the end of that. It's for all. It's a hard period. Nobody is cut out of that."
Frank Schubert, campaign manager for Minnesota for Marriage, said the NAACP has campaigned aggressively against every marriage amendment since 2008, and yet evidence suggests an overwhelming percentage of black voters supported preserving traditional marriage.
"The bottom line is that gay marriage is not in accord with the teachings of God as understood throughout the history of the black church," Schubert said. "The NAACP wants people to think of marriage as a political institution and to suggest that people are being disloyal to the platform of the Democratic party if they don't abandon their historic, moral roots and agree to redefine marriage."
While the campaign will be over in two weeks, the divide in the black community may linger long after the election.
"From the theological perspective, with where our society is headed, it concerns me that now you want to change the biblical paradigm of marriage," McAfee said. "When you start changing the definition of marriage, you're trying to infringe upon my belief like you say I'm trying to infringe on yours."
Staff writer Rose French contributed to this report. Baird Helgeson • 651-925-5044