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Civil rights group threatens to fire local leader for gay marriage endorsement

The Southern Christian Leadership Conference has targeted the Rev. Eric P. Lee, president of the Los Angeles chapter, for his outspoken advocacy.

July 11, 2009|Molly Hennessy-Fiske

The Southern Christian Leadership Conference, a civil rights group partly founded by Martin Luther King Jr., has threatened to fire the president of its Los Angeles chapter because he supports same-sex marriage.

The Rev. Eric P. Lee, president of the local SCLC chapter for two years, became an outspoken advocate of same-sex marriage during the recent campaign against Proposition 8, an amendment to the state Constitution that banned such unions.

The SCLC national board notified Lee on May 27 that he would have to attend a hearing at its Atlanta headquarters on June 4 to explain his stance on same-sex marriage. If he did not show up, they said, they would suspend and fire him.

Lee did not attend the hearing. He told the board he could not afford the last-minute trip but could participate via conference call. He said he never heard back from the board.

When Lee failed to appear for the hearing, he received an e-mail warning him to set a date to appear or face removal.

The national group's lawyer, Dexter M. Wimbish, and other leaders did not return phone calls seeking comment.

Lee maintained a high profile in the Proposition 8 fight. He wrote articles in favor of same-sex marriage and self-published a book, "Marriage Equality: Proposition 8 The California Divide." He also appeared at public demonstrations.

"That was an extremely courageous thing for an ordained minister, African American, straight man to do," said Courage Campaign leader Rick Jacobs. The local SCLC chapter's board voted to support Lee's advocacy of same-sex marriage. But Lee knew he faced opposition within the black community. An Edison/Mitofsky exit poll in California found that 70% of black voters backed Proposition 8, which passed with 52% of the vote. Friends at SCLC headquarters in Atlanta warned Lee that they were fielding complaints from conservative pastors upset about his work.

"Marriage equality is not a priority in the African American community," Lee said. "We're dealing with unemployment and underemployment, a lack of public education and affordable healthcare." But Lee said he was driven to support same-sex marriage by the teachings of King, who helped found the SCLC to champion civil rights 50 years ago.

"Any time one group of people are denied the same rights as other people, it is unequivocally a denial of civil rights," Lee said.

Reginald Byron Jones-Sawyer, the local SCLC board leader and secretary of the state's Democratic Party, has defended Lee and challenged the national leaders' ability to fire him. City Council President Eric Garcetti also wrote a letter of support.

Lee said he is not waiting for approval to continue his advocacy for same-sex marriage.

"I'm not going to let their inaction handcuff me from fighting for justice," he said.

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molly.hennessy-fiske @latimes.com

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