Opponents of the gay marriage/civil union ban are rushing to add their names to the Fair Wisconsin Web site on a daily basis, and what strange bedfellows they make.
Opponents of the Nov. 7 referendum include libertarian-minded conservatives, dyed-in-the-wool Republicans, evangelical Protestant churches, synagogues, labor unions, local chambers of commerce, business leaders, the State Bar of Wisconsin Board of Governors and influential African American officials.
Conspicuously absent are African American churches and their clergy. Frankly, I find their silence deafening.
Yes, Fair Wisconsin recently released a list of 13 black clergy. But they are all from Milwaukee, and their number is tiny. One would expect better from African American faith-community leaders.
The marriage ban is steeped in bigotry and discrimination, experiences all too familiar to people of color. So I am surprised that only two African American organizations in the state have joined the opposition: the Urban League of Greater Madison and the NAACP Madison Chapter.
As for African American churches in Madison, none have stepped forward, perhaps out of fear of losing congregation members who believe there is a biblical injunction against homosexuality. Even so, this should not deter these church leaders from at the least holding discussions about the referendum.
My preference is that they exert bold leadership. It's needed to repel a change in the state constitution that would surely cause greater problems for a black community already struggling to deal with the epidemics of gangs, drugs, homelessness and school dropouts.
What, you might ask, do these problems have to do with the referendum?
The answer lies in the second sentence of the referendum: 'A legal status identical or substantially similar to that of marriage for unmarried individuals shall not be valid or recognized in this state.' This is not a benign statement. It would deny couples ' same sex or heterosexual ' from ever having the same legal rights as married couples.
The traditional family, especially the extended family, remains intact in many African American families. But the social landscape has been significantly altered over the past 50 years.
Reality is that the two-parent household, a common phenomenon of the 1950s, no longer dominates family structure. Now, families are about working mothers, unmarried couples cohabitating, out-of-wedlock births, divorce and remarriage. And it's the African American women who bear the brunt of this societal change.
African American women are increasingly disillusioned with marriage, as evidenced by out-of-wedlock childbearing becoming the norm in cities like Milwaukee. This is a sad testament to the endangered state of the African American male.
Too many black men are burdened by racial stereotyping, joblessness, legal problems and a soaring risk of HIV/AIDS. This makes marriage a risky and unwanted experience for black women. (Their teenage children may cynically see marriage as a 'white thang,' too.) A 2005 census report found only 42% of African American men and 35% of black women are married. The stats were only marginally better for white adults.
The result? Civil unions and domestic partnerships are becoming far more common. These couples already face serious problems securing health insurance, bereavement leave, hospital visitation rights and inheritance rights. What good comes from cementing these inequities into the state constitution?
Unmarried couples living in civil unions and domestic partnerships deserve these rights just as much as married couples do. Passage of the referendum would strike a mighty blow to their lives.
My conversations with local African American clergy revealed a split on the first section of the referendum banning gay marriage but unanimous opposition to the second element aimed at civil unions.
The Rev. Gregory Armstrong of Madison's SS Morris African Methodist Episcopal Church and the Rev. Rick Jones of Mt. Zion Baptist Church both argued that politics should be left to the politicians and church matters to the church. And, while the Rev. David Smith of Faith Community Christian Church supports the referendum, he too believes that people should deal with politics outside of the church.
I know that the black church is steeped in evangelism and conservative religious doctrine that adheres strictly to biblical writings regarding gay relationships. Now, I won't dare take on any of the clergy regarding biblical text, but being a preacher's kid myself, I know that the Bible has been continuously reinterpreted over the centuries.
Let's not forget that many evil deeds were justified by declaring that the Bible condones such bigoted behavior. Slavery was justified through biblical text, as was the separation of the races, resulting in states outlawing interracial relationships and marriages. (Alabama waited until 2000 to repeal its law against interracial marriage.)
And let's not forget the powerful role the black church played in advancing the civil rights movement. And if it wasn't for the black church in Montgomery, Ala., in 1954, the freedoms many of us enjoy today would not exist.
It took the leadership of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and the Rev. Ralph Abernathy to publicly challenge segregation. When it came to issues of equality, they certainly didn't feel that politics should be left to the politicians.
Indeed, the silence of the black church on a constitutional change that will drastically affect the black community is a sharp departure from the church's heroic activism of the civil rights years. Those church leaders were more than willing to battle for the basic rights of the oppressed and disenfranchised.
Despite a recent poll that found 53% of respondents supporting the referendum, I remain optimistic that it will be defeated. I am convinced that most Wisconsinites don't want bigotry and discrimination written into the constitution.
But for this to happen, members of the black clergy need to take a stand against the referendum. The black community has too much at stake for its churches to stay silent.
STEVE BRAUNGINN IS A WRITER, PREACHER'S KID AND COMMUNITY ACTIVIST IN MADISON.