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Could Gay Marriage Keep Black Voters From Polls?


I'm Celeste Headlee and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Michel Martin is away. Coming up, we'll talk to the head of the Millennium Challenge Corporation. That's a U.S. government agency focused on pulling developing nations out of poverty. But first, it's the final stretch before Election Day. Polls show African-Americans' support, not surprisingly, is solid for President Obama.

But turnout could, in fact, make the difference in several competitive states. Traditionally, black pastors have played a big role in getting out the vote, but that could change this year because of President Obama's public support for same sex marriage. I'm joined now by Reverend Derek McCoy. He's the chairman of the Maryland Marriage Alliance, an organization that's fighting same sex marriage rights in Maryland. Reverend, thanks so much for joining us.

REVEREND DEREK MCCOY: Thank you for having me.

HEADLEE: So explain to me your opposition. There is actually an initiative on the ballot in Maryland that your organization opposes. Why is that?

MCCOY: Yes. Well, they put that on there and we did a referendum, got over a hundred to 2,000 different petitions. Our organization, quite simply, is looking at it that marriage is about - much more about what two adults want. It's about the future and the generations to come.

We also believe that, you know, when you're looking at this issue, loving and accepting our gay and lesbian friends and colleagues and family doesn't necessarily mean that we need to redefine marriage. So we think marriage is fundamental to society. It's a special and a unique relationship, and there's several different reasons.

And it's also a deeply held faith belief for many people. So we are advocating to continue that definition.

HEADLEE: Well, let me read you something that Reverend Al Sharpton said at the prayer breakfast this weekend, something that I think you attended, correct?

MCCOY: Mm-hmm. Yes, I did.

HEADLEE: And he says this is a policy debate. We cannot be part-time civil rights advocates. That's Reverend Al Sharpton.

Those who disagree on a theological level, we should have that debate in our churches, in our houses of worship. We should not legislate to say we win the argument by forcing others to do what we want. Tyranny by the majority is anti-democratic. Your response?

MCCOY: Well, I think the statement is a bit short-sighted. I think what you're looking at is that that does not eliminate people of faith from the public square in the public debate. When you're dealing with separation of church and state, where is that in the constitution? I think what you're looking at it, it was meant so that the government does not invade the church.

The people that are in the church are still people that are real citizens and members, which we'll be talking about even later when you understand you want them to go vote. You want them to be active in the process. But you can't tell them to take off their perspective and their fundamental beliefs and say that does not matter when you're going to vote.

We don't elect a pastor. We do elect a president. We're not having any issue with the president. What we're saying is that the fundamental definition of marriage is something deeply held, it's a deeply held faith belief for many people, but at the same time it's also a deeply understandable societal benefit. It has a deeply - you know, societal benefit.

HEADLEE: All right. I understand all of that, but does that mean that people in your congregation should stay away - are you advising them to stay away from the polls? I mean on this one issue? Should that affect their presidential vote?

MCCOY: Oh, absolutely not. Hear me. I'm probably the person who says, no, get out to the polls. Make sure you go vote. And for us, it does not mater - it doesn't make a difference who you vote for, because we understand, you know, we had 40 percent of people that were Democrats signed the poll - signed our petition, 43 Republican, 10 percent independent. Another four percent of Green Party, Libertarians, and everybody else.

And so it is important and imperative - one, people have fought, died, bled, and sweat and were killed for the right to vote. And matter of fact, African-Americans are still dealing with the reauthorization of the Voting Rights Act, which I think we need to put as a constitutional amendment. But all of that being said, people need to get to the polls to vote.

And on the ballot for us in Maryland, this question is on the ballot. So we're going to tell people, hey, look, vote against 6 on this issue if you want to maintain marriage between one man and one woman.

HEADLEE: We're speaking with Reverend Derek McCoy from Maryland. He's also chairman of the Maryland Marriage Alliance. So I wonder, I mean there was a large article in the Associated Press that said black pastors are telling their congregants to stay away from the polls. You're nodding your head. You saw it.

MCCOY: Yes, I did.

HEADLEE: And I wonder, I mean I didn't see anyone actually quoted in there saying I am, I'm telling people to stay away from the polls. Have you heard that?

MCCOY: Unfortunately, we have heard that. And...

HEADLEE: You've heard it from pastors who are doing this.

MCCOY: We have heard that from pastors and we have heard that language. And what we're doing, we're actually circling back around our own efforts and saying, look, you know what, I understand there could be frustration in the current political spectrum and with the president. But you know, the president's decision - and this is where I think we're a little short-sighted sometimes and I like to try and make sure people understand - for pastors, let's just be honest. Tell people to still go vote and if you want them to vote for President Obama or if you want them to vote for President Romney, just be honest about that issue. But don't say don't go vote because you're frustrated with either two picks or either two candidates. I think that's the wrong thing and the wrong message we send to pastors.

But what we've got to do is make sure they get out to those polls, make sure that we're doing the best job possible, because I think that's about leadership, it's about responsibility and the right thing to do.

HEADLEE: And to be absolutely clear, churches are not in the business of telling people who to vote for anyway, right?


MCCOY: Exactly. That's absolutely true. They're not in the business of telling people. We just understand, you know, some pastors take their liberties.

HEADLEE: That's correct. Reverend Derek McCoy is the chairman of the Maryland Marriage Alliance. Thank you so much for being with us.

MCCOY: Thank you.

HEADLEE: Also with us today, Congressman Emmanuel Cleaver, a Democrat from Missouri, also chair of the Congressional Black Caucus. Thanks so much for being with us, Congressman.

REPRESENTATIVE EMANUEL CLEAVER: Good to be with you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.