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Gay marriage support about civil rights, not religion, pastors say

Bishop CarltPearsAfrican-American Clergy Faith Leaders call Illinois General Assembly grant equal protectiall Illinoisans their  families during news conference Thursday

Bishop Carlton Pearson and African-American Clergy and Faith Leaders call on Illinois General Assembly to grant equal protection to all Illinoisans and their families during news conference, Thursday, April 4, 2013. | John H. White~Sun-Times

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Updated: May 6, 2013 6:23AM



Thirteen Chicago-area black pastors on Thursday voiced their support for gay marriage in Illinois, saying the issue is about civil rights and not about religion.

The support comes a day before Cardinal Francis George, former state Sen. James Meeks, pastor of Salem Baptist Church, and a group of black pastors plan to voice their opposition to the bill. Meeks is the voice of robocalls aimed at African-American households in Cook County, warning that family structure will be jeopardized if same-sex marriage is legalized.

“Discrimination is wrong no matter who the target is.
. . . This is about equality and justice,” said the Rev. Richard Tolliver, pastor of St. Edmund’s Episcopal Church on the South Side. “This is a matter of equal protection under the law for all citizens. This is not a religious issue.”

On a 34-21 Valentine’s Day vote, the Illinois Senate approved a same-sex marriage bill. The matter is left to the state House, where the bill’s chief sponsor would not commit to when he intends to call the legislation for a vote.

Tolliver said the legislation protects religious freedom and preserves the rights of religious groups who do not believe in same-sex marriage.

“Churches and other religious institutions don’t have to marry anyone they don’t want to,” he said. “The wording gives very specific religious protection so that nothing in your church will change. Despite what others say, the African-American community understands this difference.”

Tolliver cited a December poll from Public Policy Polling that found 60 percent of black voters in Illinois support the passage of a same-sex marriage bill, while 16 percent oppose it.

The Rev. Carlton Pearson, a Pentecostal minister, called the issue a win-win situation and said there are far more black pastors in Chicago who support the bill but are afraid to come forward.

“I think no one here is worried about whether there’s going to be backlash or not, or we wouldn’t be here,” Tolliver said. “There will be people who are supportive. There will be people who are not supportive. Our hearts are where they are.”

The Rev. Phyllis Pennese, the openly gay pastor of two south suburban churches, said she’s not worried about pastors opposing the bill: “There are more people behind justice than Rev. Meeks could ever drum up to be against justice regardless of what their faith tradition or what their faith commitment is.”

Meeks could not be reached for comment on Thursday. Meeks’ African-American Clergy Coalition formed last month and began a lobbying effort against the redefinition of marriage.

Robert Gilligan, executive director of Catholic Conference of Illinois, said the issue at hand is what the church defines as marriage: “They’re trying to redefine something that already exists, marriage between a man and woman, a gender difference. . . . The issue for us is what is marriage, and marriage is between a man and woman.”



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