BALTIMORE — During the grueling final stretch of the campaign season, Catholic and Protestant leaders in Maryland are engaged in a close referendum battle to bar same-sex “marriage” in the Old Line State.

The state’s historic black churches continue to play a leading role in that effort, but their task has been complicated by President Barack Obama’s endorsement of same-sex “marriage” earlier this year.

Recent polls have registered as much as an 11% surge in support for same-sex “marriage” among likely black voters, who represent about 30% of the electorate.

“The president’s endorsement has placed one more arrow in the quiver of our opponents, who are actively trying to split the black community from the church,” said Frank Schubert, president of Mission: Public Affairs, the Sacramento, Calif.-based campaign strategist who has worked with Catholic leaders on a slew of campaigns to defend traditional marriage from California to Maine.

Archbishop William Lori of Baltimore, who was installed in the Cathedral of Mary, Our Queen in May, said that the impact of the president’s stance was unpredictable and that Catholics, too, were likely influenced by Obama’s landmark decision to break with his predecessors and support same-sex “marriage.”

Nationally, Catholics are more likely than evangelicals to embrace such legislation to legalize same-sex “marriage,” though Catholics who attend weekly Mass are much more likely to oppose a redefinition of marriage, according to recent Pew Research Center polls.

“I don’t know specifically what impact the president’s endorsement has had. But I should imagine that those who might have been on the fence or weak in their support for traditional marriage might have found in his endorsement a reason to change sides,” Archbishop Lori told the Register.

The archbishop said that Obama’s endorsement was a “source of sadness, because the president ought to be the one who upholds morality and values and institutions on which the nation is built, like marriage.”

President Obama affirmed his support for legalizing same-sex  “marriage” during a May 9 interview on ABC News.

“I think same-sex couples should be able to get married,” he stated during the interview, months after his administration had already announced that it would no longer defend the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) in court.

On May 10, a White House blog post confirmed the president’s “change of perspective,” commenting: “In the end, the president said, he believes it’s important to ‘treat others the way you would want to be treated.’ We need to recognize that people are going to have differing views on marriage, and those views, even if we disagree strongly, should be respected.”

The editorial page of The Baltimore Sun welcomed the news as a “heartening development in the campaign for equality” and pointed to the president’s endorsement as a chance to “tip the scales” in states like Maryland, Maine and Washington.

“So far, every state that has held a vote on gay marriage has rejected it. But Maryland could be the place where that streak ends, and President Obama can help,” stated the May 10 editorial.

The endorsement was announced just months after the Maryland Legislature legalized same-sex “marriage,” and supporters of traditional marriage were scrambling to collect enough signatures to put a referendum on the ballot in November. Now on Election Day, voters will decide for or against the referendum, known as Question 6 or the Civil Marriage Protection Act, which would make same-sex “marriage” legal.


Religious-Liberty Concerns

The referendum’s language stresses that religious-freedom concerns have been addressed in the bill, but Archbishop Lori and other religious leaders spearheading the Maryland Marriage Alliance, the political coalition opposing the law, have asserted that the law fails to adequately protect the free exercise of religious institutions in the state.

“The ballot language is, frankly, deceiving. It is dressed up in religious-liberty language, but there are almost no protections for religious liberty if the law goes into effect,” stated Archbishop Lori during a recent Register interview.

“Some people will think that simply not requiring priests and ministers of churches opposed to same-sex ‘marriage’ to solemnize such marriages will protect religious liberty,” he added.

“The real threat lies in the area of licensing of Catholic Charities’ adoption agencies and accreditation of schools and universities that maintain their support of traditional marriage.”

“Don’t be fooled” is one campaign message shown on the Maryland Marriage Alliance website, one of an array of campaign communications tools employed by Maryland religious leaders opposed to a redefinition of marriage.

The Maryland Catholic Conference has stressed a similar theme in its talking points for pastors and parish outreach groups.

On Sept. 26, Archbishop Lori headlined a large meeting of Protestant leaders and Catholic bishops, priests and parishioners to outline the game plan for the final weeks before the election, including campaign ads, video messages to be aired during Sunday Mass and “tool kits” for parishes to “help people better understand the issues,” said Archbishop Lori.

That campaign got a boost when Baltimore Ravens’ center Matt Birk, a Catholic father of six, publicly announced his opposition to a redefinition of marriage. Birk is expected to appear in a campaign video that will be released soon, while some other members of the Ravens’ team have opposed the referendum.

President Obama’s endorsement of same-sex “marriage” has energized the Democratic Party base throughout the nation, with his campaign receiving a reported $1.5 million within 90 minutes of the news.

The party initiated fundraising appeals immediately, and homosexual-rights activists played a more visible role in the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte, N.C., last month.


The Black Vote

However, while black voters remain a key Democratic constituency, they are much less likely than white party members to support same-sex “marriage.” A New York Times and CBS News tracking poll found that 35% of black party members opposed a redefinition of marriage, as compared with 18% of whites in the party.

Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley, a Catholic, has made the issue a key legislative goal, signing the bill in March and then driving support for a “Yes” on the referendum in November. Catholic voters are divided on the issue and have not matched the effort of black churches to galvanize parishioners to meet with their representatives at the Maryland State House in Annapolis.

In the final months leading to the November election, national black leaders like the Rev. Jesse Jackson have come to Maryland to help get black voters on board with “marriage equality.”

“I would hope that people would respect people’s basic fundamental rights. If you don’t believe in it, don’t engage in it. But don’t deny other people their basic civil rights,” said Jackson during a recent radio interview.

The Rev. Al Sharpton echoed that argument during a high-profile press conference with Maryland ministers supporting “marriage equality” during a meeting of the Congressional Black Caucus in the nation’s capital.

Campaign strategist Schubert argues that such public endorsements also carry the “implication that if you support the president, you will support the referendum. People are trying to present this as a package: ‘We should vote the Democratic line,’ if you will, and that means to be in favor of Question 6 (the state referendum to legalize same-sex 'marriage').”

Mary Ellen Russell, executive director of the Maryland Catholic Conference, acknowledged that “the important message to get out to everyone in Maryland is that, regardless of which candidate they support, this is an issue in which the choice is in our own hands. Our vote is separate from where we stand on party lines or candidates.”

The high priority given to “marriage equality” within the Democratic Party leadership and platform has made Russell’s work more challenging over the next month.

But many leading black Protestant leaders in the state, like Bishop Harry Jackson of Hope Christian Church, have not backed away from defending traditional marriage in a variety of religious and public forums and in media interviews.

Schubert, for his part, says that “polling is looking fairly encouraging: Our internal poll puts us just under 50%, and that number rises when you do pro and con arguments” that explain the law in more depth.

The issue, he predicted, could turn on whether “at the end of the day if the black church is strong enough and independent enough to realize that what Sharpton is advocating is rank politics and not consistent with what the Bible teaches.”

Joan Frawley Desmond is the Register’s senior editor.