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U.S.

Civil Rights Group Divided Over Gay Marriage

Michal Czerwonka for The New York Times

Rev. Eric P. Lee's support of same-sex marriage has created tension with other members of the black clergy.

Published: July 10, 2009

LOS ANGELES — The Southern Christian Leadership Conference, the 50-year-old civil rights organization founded by the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and others, is seeking to remove the president of its Los Angeles chapter in response to his support of same-sex marriage in California.

The effort by the Atlanta-based organization is meeting stiff resistance in Los Angeles from both the board of the local chapter, whose chairman is secretary of the state’s Democratic Party, and the City Council president.

During the battle last fall over Proposition 8, an amendment to the State Constitution that banned same-sex marriage, the chapter’s president, the Rev. Eric P. Lee, was more than a tangential figure for the opposition. He was front and center at an opposition group’s large rally at City Hall and marched in the blazing sun for 15 miles in Fresno. Many other local African-American pastors prepared mailings featuring church leaders in support of the proposition and linking their views to Barack Obama, then the Democratic nominee for president.

Mr. Lee “was very helpful to us,” said Rick Jacobs, head of the Courage Campaign, a left-leaning political action group in Los Angeles that fought the initiative.

While the Mormon Church raised a great deal of the money in support of the proposition, the role of African-American churches, and their voting parishioners, was not insignificant. The Edison/Mitofsky exit poll in California found that 70 percent of black voters backed the ban, which passed with 52 percent of the vote.

Mr. Lee said that his opposition to Proposition 8 had “created tension in my life I had never experienced with black clergy.”

“But it was clear to me,” he added, “that any time you deny one group of people the same right that other groups have, that is a clear violation of civil rights and I have to speak up on that.”

In April, Mr. Lee attended a board meeting of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference in Kansas City, Mo., and found himself once again in the minority position among his colleagues on the issue of same-sex marriage, but he was told, he said, by the group’s interim president, Byron Clay, that the organization publicly had a neutral position on the issue.

So a month later, Mr. Lee said, he was surprised to receive a call from the National Board of Directors summoning him immediately to Atlanta to explain why he had taken a position on same-sex marriage without the authority of the national board.

Explaining that he was unable to come to Atlanta on such short notice, Mr. Lee then received two letters from the organization’s lawyer, Dexter M. Wimbish, threatening him with suspension or removal as president of the Los Angeles chapter if he did not come soon to explain himself.

Mr. Wimbish did not return calls to his office, nor did the Rev. Raleigh Trammell, chairman of the organization’s national board. A woman who identified herself as Renee Richardson left a voice-mail message for a reporter, saying the organization did not “discuss internal matters.” She did not return follow-up calls.

The issue attracted the attention of the president of the Los Angeles City Council, Eric Garcetti, who wrote to the board in support of Mr. Lee.

Because chapters of the leadership conference operate autonomously and presidents are picked by local boards, it is not clear that the national organization has the authority to remove Mr. Lee from his post, which he has held for two years.

“It’s been our position that the local board hired him,” said Reginald Byron Jones-Sawyer, chairman of the local board and secretary of the California Democratic Party. “And, in fact, we are also the ones that approved his stance on the position of marriage equality. We have asked the national board if we have violated any procedures, and we have not gotten an answer.”

Mr. Lee, the former pastor of In His Steps, an African-American Wesleyan church in Los Angeles that he described as “very conservative,” said he saw failures both in the leadership of the conference (“Dr. King would be turning over in his grave right now,” he said) and the largely white anti-Proposition 8 movement that did not more actively seek the support of church-going African-Americans.

“The black church played a significant role in Proposition 8 passing,” Mr. Lee said. “The failure of the campaign was to presume that African-Americans would see this as a civil rights issue.”