By Tom Brokaw Correspondent
NBC News
updated 10/20/2004 7:28:52 PM ET 2004-10-20T23:28:52

Atlanta native Demetria Mills wants what many women in their 30s want — to marry the person she loves.

"It's an important transition in life; it's an important way of becoming a family," she says.

One man standing in her way is Pastor William Sheals. He performs as many as 60 marriages a year at the Hopewell Missionary Baptist Church in suburban Atlanta. But he won't marry Mills, because she wants to marry another woman — her partner of six years, Sylvia Obadic.

"It is against the basic principles that I believe in according to God's word," says Pastor Sheals.

Never have the words "I do" been as divisive as they are now.

Could Mills and Obadic accomplish the same objective by entering into a civil union?

"I would like to be married in a church, but I would like the legal sort of stamp of approval on my relationship in the same way that any other American would have," says Mills.

In fact, Mills says her mother and father faced much of the same struggle. In 1970, her father, Roger Mills, a white man, fell in love with a black woman, Berta Linson — at a time when interracial marriage was illegal in Mississippi. They eventually won the right to marry and became the first legally married interracial couple in the state.

"I kinda sensed that love could conquer anything," Mills says. "What I want is to be able to have that basic human right."

Pastor Sheals bristles at the suggestion made by Mills and others who compare the struggle to legalize same-sex marriage to the fight for civil rights.

"I'm appalled by that, by comparing the two — apples and oranges — because being born black is not a sin nor a choice," he says.

Sheals has 17,000 people in his congregation. Some are probably homosexuals. When one of those homosexual members of his congregation comes to him and says, “Reverend Sheals, I love my partner. I don't want to be with anyone else.” What does he say to them?

"I say to them that it's unacceptable, it's ungodly and it's unnatural," he says.

As a leading voice on the issue of gay marriage nationwide, Pastor Sheals is backing Georgia's proposed constitutional amendment to ban same sex marriage.

"I don't have a personal opinion. I don't have a personal interpretation," he says. "What I have is a theological and moral stance. And that's the word of God. He ordained the institution of marriage, man and woman."

Demetria Mills disagrees.

"My guess is that ten years from now people will be able to be legally married. But, I think we might still have a few hurdles to jump through," she says.

Demetria Mills and Pastor Sheals live in the same state and worship in a common faith, but the subject of gay marriage is a deep fault line across their common ground.

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