A minister opposed to same-sex marriage that the Democratic National Committee hired to reach out to people of faith says he’s a “strong defender” of the rights of LGBT people and supports civil unions for gay and lesbian couples.
But same-sex marriage advocates say support for civil unions over marriage is unacceptable for the Democratic Party and that the DNC could have chosen among a number of prominent ministers that support marriage rights for same-sex couples.
The DNC’s announcement in October that it had named Rev. Derrick Harkins, senior pastor of D.C.’s Nineteenth Street Baptist Church, to head its faith outreach program created an immediate stir when news surfaced that Harkins doesn’t support same-sex marriage and that he was incorrectly identified in 2009 as a supporter of D.C.’s same-sex marriage law.
“My record clearly shows that I am a strong defender of the rights of all people, including LGBT people,” Harkins told the Blade in an email exchange last week. “I consistently state, from the pulpit and elsewhere, that there is never a time when words or actions that dehumanize or marginalize any individual have a place in our life as a church and faith community.”
Observers in the religious press, including Christianity Today, have said Harkins is a generally progressive minister with strong ties to the Evangelical Christian community and black churches, attributes that could boost the Democratic Party’s standing with evangelical voters while shoring up support from black churches.
Although some LGBT advocates for same-sex marriage say they are disappointed and puzzled over the DNC’s decision to hire a same-sex marriage opponent for an important staff position, two prominent gay Democratic leaders have rallied to Harkins’ and the DNC’s defense.
Rick Stafford, chair of the DNC’s LGBT Caucus, and Brian Bond, former liaison to the LGBT community at the Obama White House and the current DNC national constituency director, released statements pointing to Harkins’ longstanding record of support on LGBT equality issues.
The two noted that while Harkins doesn’t support same-sex marriage, he supports full legal rights for same-sex couples through civil unions.
Stafford said in his statement, released by email, that it was Bond who “brought Rev. Harkins onboard at the DNC.”
In his own statement, Bond called Harkins “a progressive faith leader who supports the right of same-sex couples to equal benefits and equal protection under the law.”
Stafford, a longtime gay Democratic Party activist in Minnesota, said that “to mischaracterize Rev. Harkins’ views and demonize him as a roadblock to equality for LGBT Americans is not helpful to the ongoing effort of building coalitions in our journey to full equality.”
But a number of prominent LGBT advocates, including gay rights attorney Evan Wolfson, said the DNC’s decision to hire a minister opposed to same-sex marriage sends the wrong message to gays and their straight allies as the 2012 elections are fast approaching.
“The overwhelming majority of Democrats support the freedom to marry as do independents and growing numbers across the political spectrum,” said Wolfson, who heads the same-sex marriage advocacy group Freedom to Marry.
“The Democratic Party should be speaking out forcefully and forthrightly in support of the dignity and equality of all Americans and equal protection under the law, which includes the freedom to marry,” Wolfson said.
Asked if Rev. Harkins’ support for civil unions was an acceptable position for a DNC official, Wolfson said, “Does the reverend have a civil union?” When told that Harkins’ official biography says he’s married, Wolfson added, “Right, and for the same reason that marriage matters to people like him it matters to all of us, and that’s what equality does mean.”
DNC spokesperson Melanie Roussell, who said Harkins would not be available for a direct interview, arranged last week for Harkins to answer written questions submitted by the Blade.
When asked to explain his thinking on legal rights for same-sex couples, including civil unions versus marriage, Harkins suggested that his views were evolving.
“In my own journey, I am glad to be part of the ongoing dialogue that brings people of good will toward the goal of common ground, and to acknowledge that perspectives continue to change,” he said. “It’s worth noting that in the not too distant past, ‘traditional’ marriage was limited to same race, same religion, and same nationality. While theological debates may persist, the protections of the law, and the acknowledgement of the rights of same sex couples should be seen as just and fair.”
Roussell said Harkins could not respond to a question asking if he would support adding language to the Democratic Party platform next year backing same-sex marriage and calling on Congress to repeal the Defense of Marriage Act, or DOMA, which bans the federal government from recognizing same-sex marriages performed in states that have legalized such marriages.
“It is inappropriate for any DNC staff member to comment on the party platform at this time,” Roussell said.
Harkins told the Blade in an email response that ministers he knows who supported the marriage bill pending before the D.C. City Council in 2009 “inadvertently” added his name to a list of clergy backing the marriage measure.
He said he was never contacted by members of D.C. Clergy United for Marriage Equality to confirm whether he supported same-sex marriage. That was the group that compiled the list of clergy backing the law.
“I am certain that my name was inadvertently moved to the ‘confirmed’ category,” he said.
The list shows Harkins as the 93rd clergy person to be added to the 2009 petition declaring, “God is love and love is for everyone. In this spirit we raise our voices in the struggle for the right and freedom to marry” for same-sex couples.
“I count a number of the signers of the petition as personal friends, and all of them as colleagues in ministry, and take no exception to the fact that my name may have been included in initial discussions about potential signers,” Harkins said.
“But my signing the marriage equality petition would have implicitly taken our church toward a position on the issue without the benefit of the extensive consideration, and ultimately, congregational approval that would be needed for a decision as significant as this,” he said.
Nearly 200 ministers, rabbis and other clergy that supported the same-sex marriage bill agreed to have their names placed on the petition.
The D.C. Council passed the same-sex marriage law in December 2009 and then Mayor Adrian Fenty signed it a short time later. It took effect in March 2010 after clearing a required review by Congress.
Rev. Cedric Harmon, a member of the steering committee of D.C. Clergy United for Marriage Equality and a leader among the city’s black clergy in support of the D.C. same-sex marriage law, said he was surprised and puzzled over Harkins’ assertion of opposition to same-sex marriage.
Harmon said he has known Harkins for many years and has worked with him on various progressive causes, including the development of sex education programs for the city’s historic black churches that called for acceptance of LGBT people.
“I know he personally had done a lot to move the conversation and dialogue around full equality forward, especially as it relates to sexual orientation and gender,” Harmon said.
John Aravosis, the gay rights advocate and publisher of America Blog was the first to report that Harkins’ name appeared on the 2009 list of clergy backing D.C.’s marriage law.
Aravosis took exception to Bond’s and Stafford’s assessment of Harkins, writing in an Oct. 28 posting that at least some in the LGBT community “were pretty upset that the Democrats would hire someone who doesn’t support our full and equal status as human beings.”
Lateefah Williams, president of D.C.’s Gertrude Stein Democratic Club, the city’s largest LGBT political group, said the club has not taken a position on the DNC’s decision to hire Harkins. She said she had no immediate comment on the development.
Rick Rosendall, vice president of the Gay and Lesbian Activists Alliance of Washington, D.C., called the DNC’s action “a politically tone-deaf decision” that falls far short of what the Democratic Party should be doing in meeting its stated commitment to equality for all Americans.
“The Democrats are better overall than the Republicans by far, of course,” Rosendall said. “But that’s just not good enough. If the Democrats want gay voters to be strongly motivated in the coming election they need to stop being so hand-cringingly cautious in a way that this demonstrates.”
Rosendall said both the DNC and President Obama would gain more overall support in the 2012 election than they would lose by backing same-sex marriage. Obama has said he supports civil unions rather than same-sex marriage but that his position on the issue is evolving.
“It’s pretty clear to most folks who look at this that the people who are opposed to our equality are generally not going to vote for the president anyway,” he said.
Michael Cole-Schwartz, spokesperson for the Human Rights Campaign, said that while HRC is disappointed that the DNC’s new faith outreach director “is not a supporter of marriage equality, we recognize that Rev. Harkins is a strong supporter of many LGBT equality issues and we look forward to working with him on areas of mutual agreement.”