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Is same-sex marriage a civil rights issue?
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The Rev. Bob Battle of the Berean Church in St. Paul opposes same-sex marriage, and says it does not compare to the civil rights struggles of African-Americans and other racial minorities. (MPR Photo/Tom Scheck)
The fate of a constitutional same-sex marriage ban could largely be decided Friday when a Minnesota Senate committee considers whether the issue should go on the November ballot. Supporters of the constitutional ban say they want to ensure that Minnesota's Defense of Marriage Act cannot be overturned in the courts. But opponents say they want gay couples to have the same civil rights and legal benefits afforded to heterosexual couples. The civil rights argument has caused concern among some African American religious leaders in Minnesota, especially when it's compared to the fight for racial equality. They argue that the civil rights struggle is completely different than the gay marriage issue.

St. Paul, Minn. — Many gay couples say they want their relationships recognized as marriages so they have the same legal rights available to heterosexual couples. They want, for instance, the right to visit a partner in the hospital, receive a partner's Social Security benefits or inherit a partner's wealth without paying taxes. They say to deny them these rights amounts to discrimination, a point made by Rep. Neva Walker, DFL-Minneapolis, during floor debate on Wednesday.

The basics for the civil rights movement is that we are all God's children, created equal in God's eyes. As for marriage, God created us male and female. That's the basics for marriage.
- Rev. Bob Battle

Walker, one of two African-Americans in the Minnesota House, voted against the proposal. She said she's concerned these types of proposals will erode civil rights for everyone.

"We live in a global society. Discrimination isn't just about race anymore," Walker said. "I must say, and I said this a couple of years ago, I still am not sure that if I had to depend on this body to have my civil rights, that I would have them." Walker says the proposed amendment would put discrimination in the Minnesota Constitution. She says it's wrong to treat one group differently than another group.

But some object to Walker's description of discrimination and the concept of civil rights for gay couples. The Rev. Bob Battle is the pastor of the Berean Church in St. Paul. Battle, an African-American, grew up in Mississippi during the days of segregation. He served as the head of the St. Paul Human Rights Department under Mayors Kelly and Coleman, and he says the issue of gay marriage is different than the civil rights struggle.

"The basics for the civil rights movement is that we are all God's children, created equal in God's eyes. As for marriage, God created us male and female. That's the basics for marriage," says Battle.

Three other African-American pastors and an individual who volunteers in the African-American community also spoke on the issue at the Capitol news conference. All say homosexuality is immoral and goes against the Bible.

Sam Nero, pastor of the Church of New Life in south Minneapolis, says African-Americans were excluded from full participation in society. Nero says gays aren't excluded from marrying, as long as they marry someone from the opposite sex.

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Image Rep. Keith Ellison

"When I grew up in Louisiana back in the early '50s and '60s, it was very difficult for me to do certain things. And it wasn't because of my preference in any part of lifestyle other than color," says Nero. "Today I stand before anyone and tell them that my civil rights were violated because of my skin color, not because of any particular lifestyle that stood before me."

Rep. Keith Ellison, DFL-Minneapolis, also voted against the proposed constitutional amendment. Ellison is the only other African-American who serves in the Minnesota House beside Walker. He says African-Americans should look to history as they consider this issue.

"I do feel somewhat that based on our experiences in this country, we should not be opposing people having their rights," Ellison says. "We know what it's like to not have your rights. We know what it's like to be deprived of your liberty and therefore we ought to know better."

Ellison also says he's worried the public may believe that all African-Americans are against gay marriage simply because some few African-American religious leaders are against it.

The issue has divided African-Americans on a national level as well, with many national leaders opposing same-sex marriage, while Coretta Scott King publicly supported the issue in a speech earlier this week.

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