In the District of Columbia, where African-Americans are the majority and black congregations dominate, the recent vote to recognize same-sex marriages may signal the gay rights movement is making inroads among groups traditionally opposed to it.
With this month's vote, Washington became the first place in the U.S. with a large percentage of black residents to take up the issue. Congress still has the final say over the district's laws, but gay rights activists now have reason to believe that strong opposition is gradually giving way to more acceptance, despite a forceful outcry by some black churches.
The issue is particularly complex in D.C., where nearly 60 percent of the residents are African-American. Of the five states that allow gay marriage — Connecticut, Iowa, Maine, Massachusetts and Vermont — none has such a large makeup of blacks.
Activist Donna Payne knows just how complex the issue is for the black community.
A black preacher once told her she would be accepted into his church under one condition — that she didn't tell anyone she was a lesbian. Payne said keeping quiet wasn't possible.
"That's the conundrum in the African-American community," Payne said. "They don't want to talk about it, but they know you're there."
The influence of black churches was evident as the D.C. Council debated whether to recognize same-sex marriages performed elsewhere. As more than 100 mostly black protesters gathered outside city hall, council member Marion Barry, a longtime supporter of gay rights, rejected the measure and sided with ministers who he said "stand on the moral compass of God."
But Yvette Alexander, who also represents a majority-black ward, gave her support and accused some ministers of doubting her faith.
'Questioned my Christianity'
"They have questioned my Christianity. They have questioned my morality," she said. Then, addressing the pastors, Alexander said: "Everyone is equal under God, and there are a lot in the gay community that are at your very churches, in your congregations."
Although black churches tend to be socially progressive and have a history of fighting for equal rights, most are theologically conservative, believing that scripture condemns homosexuality, said Anthony B. Pinn, a professor of religious studies at Rice University.
They also view gay marriage as a threat to the traditional black family, which is struggling with high divorce and low marriage rates, he said.
"From their perspective, anything that runs contradictory to that understanding of the nuclear family poses a threat," Pinn said.
It was amid this backdrop that Barry, who served four terms as mayor, declared "we may have a civil war" after the vote. He was the only council member out of 13 to oppose the measure.
'Armageddon of the marriage debates'
Barry wasn't the only one using such strong rhetoric.
"I am convinced that this is going to be the Armageddon of the marriage debate," said Harry Jackson, a black bishop who has organized rallies opposing gay marriage and has been a national voice for conservative Christians on the issue.
Jackson, who lives in Washington and leads a church in Beltsville, Md., said he plans to lead a multiracial group of pastors from around the country to Capitol Hill this week to urge lawmakers to intervene in D.C.'s decision.
Congress has until July to review the measure. If it takes no action, the legislation becomes law automatically and could be a step toward allowing gay marriages to be performed in Washington — an effort the D.C. Council intends to take on later this year.
Despite Barry and Jackson's claims, there's evidence the city isn't as split on gay marriage as some suggest. Of the 12 council members who voted in favor of the gay-marriage bill, six are black.
A group of Democrats in the primarily black ward that Barry represents voted 21 to 11 to support same-sex marriage legislation over the weekend. And Washington has a history of supporting gay rights; the city passed a law in 1992 recognizing domestic partnerships.
Accusations against critics
Local gay advocates have accused critics of framing the debate as one led by rich, white gay men forcing the issue on working class black residents.
"They're trying to whip up hysteria and use race and class issues to divide the city," said Michael Crawford, who is black and chairs the advocacy group D.C. for Marriage.
Meanwhile, a multiracial group of gay and straight D.C. pastors are drafting a letter in support of gay marriage and urging respectful dialogue. Other gay advocates are distributing pamphlets and holding discussions to educate people on why they think it's important that gays have the same protections as straight, married couples.
It's difficult to know how the issue would fare today in Washington if put to a popular vote — as opponents would like. A 2006 poll of likely D.C. voters found most would oppose an initiative defining marriage as between a man and woman. White residents were most strongly against such an initiative, but 49 percent of blacks were for it.
For Shaun Allende, 27, a D.C. resident who will be at the city's annual Black Pride event this weekend, marriage has little do with the wedding ceremony.
"It's about the rights and privileges that people who fall in love and make that commitment are garnered when they are married," said Allende, who is black and Hispanic.