Image: Anti-Warren protest
Erik S. Lesser  /  EPA
Several dozen people protested Monday against the Rev. Rick Warren outside the Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta.
updated 1/19/2009 5:46:25 PM ET 2009-01-19T22:46:25

A celebration Monday for Martin Luther King Jr. tried to focus on Tuesday's historic inauguration, but the presence of the Rev. Rick Warren — a Southern Baptist who opposes gay marriage — proved a distraction.

Warren gave the keynote address at the church where King used to preach, urging the crowd to follow King's example of service and selflessness.

But about 100 protesters gathered across the street, and there was an outburst from at least one critic before Warren addressed the audience.

Warren backed a recent ballot measure banning same-sex marriage in his home state of California. Obama's decision to give Warren a role in the inauguration sparked protests from the gay community and the National Organization for Women.

Warren is also scheduled to give the invocation Tuesday at Obama's inauguration.

"Tomorrow when I pray the invocation for my friend, Dr. King and a whole host of witnesses will be shouting," Warren said. "Martin Luther King was a mighty tool in the hand of God. But God isn't through. Justice is a journey and we're getting further and further along."

Isaac Newton Farris, president of The King Center and King's nephew, defended The King Center's choice of keynote speaker, saying that Warren's stances on issues like global warming, AIDS and poverty are in keeping with King's ideals.

"Warren is not so easy to pigeonhole as your average conservative," Farris said.

Audience member Margarette Towner, a resident of Stockbridge in Atlanta's southern suburbs, said she enjoyed Warren's message and was only vaguely aware of the controversy surrounding him.

"Everybody has their own opinions," "Towner said, shrugging her shoulders. "That's what makes us so different. That's what makes America so great."

Obama a 'gigantic leap'
Farris told the jubilant crowd on what would have been King's 80th birthday that the election of Barack Obama was built on a foundation laid by King and was a "gigantic leap" toward the fulfillment King's dream. The sanctuary of Ebenezer Baptist Church was packed, with dozens of people left outside.

Slideshow: Honoring the Dream "There is definitely a spiritual connection between these two events," Farris told the mostly black congregation that erupted in applause at any mention of Obama's name.

But he cautioned the crowd that Obama's ascent to the nation's highest political office is not the final achievement of King's vision.

Farris said that as long as disparities persist in health care, education and economics, King's work remains undone.

"The dream was not about an individual or any race of people attaining power," Farris said. "It was a human dream."

King preached at Ebenezer Baptist Church from 1960 until his death in 1968.

Only one of King's three living children, Bernice, attended the Monday event. His sister, Christine King Farris, led the ceremony.

King's son Martin Luther King III was in Washington already and his other son Dexter King — who lives in California — did not attend. Their other sister, Yolanda, died in 2007.

Copyright 2009 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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