By Michael Gordon
Posted: Monday, Jan. 30, 2012
On Sunday in Charlotte, the emerging campaigns around North Carolina’s proposed constitutional ban on same-sex marriage skirmished along a three-mile front. That’s the distance between two of the city’s most prominent churches, both of them Baptist. Philosophically, their pastors set the poles on what could be a wrenching statewide debate.
At Myers Park Baptist, the Rev. Steve Shoemaker gave a sermon he called “The Opposite of Love.” In it, he urged his congregation to vote down the amendment, calling it an affront to the Bill of Rights and the Golden Rule.
Meanwhile, Mark Harris, senior pastor at First Baptist of Charlotte and president of the Baptist State Convention, announced further plans to get the amendment passed May 8. The convention represents about 4,300 churches and about 1.3 million members.
Interviewed a few hours after his own church service, Harris repeated his belief that homosexuality is condemned in the Bible, that same-sex unions threaten traditional marriage, and that a link between the laws of God and man has long been the basis of the country’s – and the state’s – legal system.
North Carolina already has a law against same-sex marriage. But it will be the last Southern state to vote on putting the ban into its constitution. Last week, groups continued lining up on both sides. Money has poured in from out of state. Some 30 states have voted on a similar amendment; all have passed.
For 20 minutes at his 11 a.m. service, Shoemaker made his case for North Carolina to break from the pack. He said the amendment contradicts Baptist root doctrine of personal and religious freedom. He also argued that it contradicts North Carolina’s long tradition for individual liberties (the state wouldn’t sign the Constitution until the Bill of Rights was added).
On a day when the lyrics of the hymns and the words of the Scripture readings spoke of loving and accepting your neighbor, Shoemaker said the amendment “reinforces cruel and harmful attitudes about gay people and their families,” and “builds discrimination into the fundamental legal document of our state.”
“I am troubled when religious people seek to turn their interpretation of their sacred scriptures into civil law,” he said, part of a sermon that drew a round of applause at its close. “The tyranny of a religious majority can turn a democracy into a theocracy. A religious institution should define ‘holy matrimony’ for its members. It is another thing to encode their interpretation of scripture into the law of the land.”
Harris, on the other hand, said the amendment would add another layer of government protection between traditional marriage and those who would challenge the laws that define it. Six states and the District of Columbia have legalized gay marriages.
“Government doesn’t regulate friendship. It doesn’t regulate dating. You can have sexually intimate relations without any government involvement,” he said. “But marriage is a special relationship reserved exclusively for heterosexuals for one reason. Only intimate relations between men and women have the ability to produce children.”
The debate over gay rights has divided the congregations for more than a decade. In 2007, Harris and other Southern Baptist conservatives voted to expel the Myers Park church from their ranks because of its acceptance of gays without trying to change them.
In early March, Harris said he’ll turn his pulpit over to Tony Perkins, president of the Family Research Council, who will speak about the amendment and its impact on marriage and family. The Washington, D.C.-based conservative Christian group opposes expanded gay rights.
Groups on both sides of the May vote have already begun mobilizing. The campaign has been muddied by Gov. Bev. Perdue’s announcement last week that she will not seek a second term.
That means a Democratic primary on May 8 to choose a gubernatorial nominee – and the likelihood of a far greater turnout deciding the amendment.
On Saturday, the NAACP met in Durham and said it will work to defeat the same-sex ban.
Harris, who said amendment supporters already include numerous black churches across the state, said the NAACP’s action shows that it is out of touch with its roots.
Shoemaker, though, spent part of his sermon establishing a parallel between same-sex marriage and interracial ones. The latter were illegal across much of the country until the Supreme Court struck down state bans in 1967.
Up until then, he said, Scripture and natural law were cited by churches and governments in opposing interracial unions. After the court ruled, social mores softened.
“The law led the way,” Shoemaker said. “Then our experiences began to change our prejudices.”