Two groups of African American ministers held dueling lunchtime news conferences in South Los Angeles on Tuesday to rally support for and against Proposition 8, which would amend the state Constitution to define marriage as between a man and a woman.
At the sprawling Crenshaw Christian Center, dozens of ministers -- representing, they said, hundreds of thousands of congregants -- gathered in front of cheering schoolchildren who had been let out of class for the event and exhorted the faithful to pass the measure.
"Marriage is between a man and a woman," said Dr. Frederick K.C. Price, who leads the 22,000-member Crenshaw Christian Center. He urged his audience to "stand with God in saying the definition of marriage must not change."
A few miles away at Lucy Florence Cultural Center in Leimert Park, a much smaller group of ministers -- three, as it turned out -- spoke against the measure. Among their arguments: that African Americans, given their history of discrimination, should not be taking away rights.
"Same-gender marriage is a civil rights issue," the Rev. Eric Lee, president of the Southern Christian Leadership Council of Los Angeles, said at a recent event.
The California Supreme Court this spring legalized same-sex marriage. Proposition 8 would amend the Constitution to prohibit it. A "yes" vote on the measure means that the Constitution would be amended to disallow gay marriage.
African American voters could play a crucial role in the fight over same-sex marriage. Though they make up only about 6% of the electorate in California, they are expected to vote in record numbers this election because of Barack Obama's presence on the ballot.
The Yes on 8 campaign is counting on them, arguing that some polls suggest African Americans are generally less open to same-sex unions than other groups.
"They are our strongest supporters," said Frank Schubert, who is managing the Yes on 8 campaign.
But opponents of the proposition say they think that black voters may be more tolerant than many political professionals predict.
"People have this impression that black people in general are more homophobic than the population as a whole," said Ron Buckmire, who heads the Barbara Jordan/Bayard Rustin Coalition, a black gay rights group in Los Angeles.
Both sides, meanwhile, are contending that Obama would approve of their view. That's because the first black presidential candidate of a major party has said that he is against Proposition 8 but has also expressed opposition to gay marriage.
"He said both sides. We are picking the one we like," said Derek McCoy, a minister who came from Washington, D.C., in August to organize African American clergy across the state to oppose the measure.
Standing on the lawn at the Crenshaw Christian Center, Nyesha Scott said she is thrilled to vote for Obama -- and is also firmly in favor of Proposition 8. "It's just wrong for gays and lesbians to marry," she said. "It's supposed to be a female and a male."
Outside First African Methodist Episcopal Church in the West Adams district on a recent Sunday, meanwhile, many parishioners said they plan to vote against the measure.
"The Bible says judge not, less ye be judged," said Archie Shackles, 55, a tenor in the First AME choir. "I have more important issues to deal with."
See how much money supporters and opponents of Proposition 8 have raised, as well as who has donated and where the donors live.