Rev. Delman Coates, senior pastor of Mt. Ennon Baptist Church in Clinton, Md., in 2011 began to notice more same-sex couples were joining his 8,000 member congregation in Prince George’s County.
He scheduled a meeting with a lesbian couple from D.C. who had just moved to Maryland, but they cancelled because one of the women had become sick. They eventually sat down with Coates and revealed one of them did not have health insurance because she and her daughter could not get added to the working partner’s policy.
“It just seemed unfair in our society that some would have rights and benefits that others didn’t have,” Coates told the Washington Blade during a Feb. 15 interview. “I reached a point where I felt like gays and lesbians shouldn’t have to wait for people of faith to debate certain passages of the Bible to determine whether they are tested equally under the law.”
Coates emerged as one of Maryland’s most prominent marriage equality supporters after testifying last February in support of a bill that would allow gays and lesbians to legally marry in the state.
He appeared in a television ad in support of the marriage law that Gov. Martin O’Malley signed last March ahead of the Nov. 6 referendum on it. Coates also joined Revs. Al Sharpton, S. Todd Yeary of Douglas Memorial Community Church in Baltimore, Christine Wiley of Covenant Baptist Church in D.C. and other prominent black clergy who urged Marylanders to vote for the law during a September press conference at the National Press Club in the nation’s capital.
“I thought it was important for me to take a stand,” Coates said.
‘It was important to raise my voice’
Coates told the Blade it was important for him to “really change the narrative” about where “all black megachurch pastors” stand on gay rights.
“I didn’t want my silence to be interpreted as consent,” Coates said. “I just thought it was important for me to raise my voice on this issue, to really shift the narrative around where the black church is on gay rights.”
Polls in the months leading up to the referendum indicated slightly more than half of black Marylanders backed the same-sex marriage law. An Anzalone Liszt Grove Research poll the Respect for Marriage Coalition released on Tuesday found 51 percent of black respondents support nuptials for gays and lesbians, versus 41 percent who oppose it.
Question 6 passed in predominantly black Baltimore City by a 57-43 percent margin. It lost in Prince George’s County by less than 4,000 votes.
Coates said members of his congregation were “overwhelmingly supportive” of his same-sex marriage advocacy, even though they first found out about it in the Washington Post and New York Times.
He noted roughly 1,000 people joined the church in 2012, which he described as the best year in its history. Fewer than 10 people left the congregation over his support of the issue.
“The people in the pews understood it,” Coates said. “They understood that the foundation of this country is built upon liberty and justice for all.”
Marriage opponents target Coates
Bishop Angel Nuñez of Bilingual Christian Church in Baltimore, Family Research Council President Tony Perkins and others who oppose nuptials for gays and lesbians frequently questioned whether the same-sex marriage law protects religious freedom in the weeks leading up to the referendum. Bishop Harry Jackson of Hope Christian Church in Beltsville was among those who specifically criticized Coates and Rev. Donté Hickman of Southern Baptist Church in Baltimore for supporting the law.
“We wanted to make sure the legislation beefed up language that protected individual clergy and churches that did not affirm, acknowledge or perform same-sex marriages if it was against their religious beliefs and practices,” Coates said in response to the aforementioned criticisms. “I found this response to be a distraction, a red herring from the real issue.”
Coates and Hickman also joined same-sex marriage opponents who criticized the suspension of a senior Gallaudet University administrator who signed the petition that prompted the referendum on the law that allowed gays and lesbians to tie the knot.
“I affirm people’s right to have a different personal, theological or political view,” Coates said. “I have never forced my view on anyone.”
Tide is ‘shifting very quickly’
Coates spoke to the Blade a day after the Illinois Senate approved a bill that would allow gays and lesbians to marry in the state.
A same-sex marriage measure passed by a significant margin last month in the Rhode Island House of Representatives. Lawmakers in Delaware, Minnesota and New Jersey are expected to consider the issue in the coming weeks and months.
Coates said one of the things he thinks surprised observers is the fact the referendum passed in a state where 30 percent of the voters are black. He further noted the religious community remains “strong” in Maryland.
“There’s this presupposition that people of faith and African-American people of faith are, in some way, narrow minded and dogmatic and anti-intellectual,” Coates said. “What we’ve seen in Maryland is we should give the electorate the benefit of the doubt.”
He added he feels more pastors and other people of faith with whom he speaks increasingly understand “what’s at stake.”
“The tide is shifting very quickly,” Coates said. “People understand if we’re going to become a more perfect union, we have to be on the side of equal treatment under the law for every person.”