City Hall Marriage Backlash

Dozens of conservative clergy rally against same-sex marriage in steady downpour

MCC’s Rev. Pat Bumgardner marries four couples in protest of Bloomberg legal appeal

From behind a podium in front of the cold, rain-soaked steps of City Hall, Rev. Joseph Mattera warned of a backlash from local conservative religious communities in reaction to a recent court decision to allow same-sex marriage in New York City.

“As the Japanese admiral said after they bombed Pearl Harbor, ‘I think we just awakened a giant,’” he said at a press conference organized for Valentine’s Day. “As much as [same-sex marriage] is an unfortunate issue, it has done one good thing. It has galvanized the church and you ain’t seen nothing yet. Believe me.”

A chorus of “amens” followed. Behind Mattera stood approximately 60 clergy members from different denominations. Mattera is senior pastor at Resurrection Church of Sunset Park, Brooklyn and president of the City Action Coalition (CAC), a group of clergy which seeks to “represent and advocate for the Judeo-Christian values of mainstream America to elected and public officials, media and to the nation,” according to the group’s Web site.

“We believe that if one judge can affect the laws for the whole state, then we are in a very dangerous position and that’s one of the main galvanizing points of why we are here today,” said Rev. Jeff Beacham, the director of Firepower Ministries International, an evangelical group founded in Australia and operating in the U.S. since 1999.

That judge is Manhattan State Supreme Court Justice Doris Ling-Cohan, who ruled that the state’s Domestic Relation Law, which she found denies gay couples the right to marry, violated the state Constitution and that the city clerk must issue same-sex marriage licenses.

“We oppose all efforts of activist judges who take it upon themselves to legislate the law from the bench, thus ignoring the democratic process and voters,” said Michel Faulkner, senior pastor of the Upper West Side’s Central Baptist Church.

Just outside the gates of City Hall, in the park to the south, a growing crowd of faithful sang “Glory, Glory, Halleluja” and waved signs that read “Stop Same-Sex Unions,” and “Impeach Judge Cohan.”

“We believe that this issue will be one of the determining factors in the mayoral election,” Faulkner said. “We will urge our congregations and constituents to withhold their votes from any mayoral candidate who intends on legalizing same-sex marriage.”

Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg, the day after Ling-Cohan’s ruling said that though he personally supports gay marriage, the city will appeal the February 4 decision. Most clergy interviewed said they were troubled by the mayor’s position, but glad about the appeal.

“Mayor Bloomberg is riding both sides of the fence right now,” said Rev. Roger McPhail, of the New Hope Fellowship in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn. “The jury is still out on whether the evangelicals will support him.”

But Mattera made it clear that the mayor’s personal stance on the issue was not a deal breaker, admitting the political reality of the city’s mayoral contest.

“We believe that all the primary candidates oppose our ideology with this issue, so we are not saying that that will be enough for us to withhold our vote,” Mattera said. “It’s one thing to say you are for same-sex marriage and its another to try to push it through legislatively. There’s a difference there.”

As he and others spoke, the crowd beyond the fence sang “God Bless America,” praised Jesus and chanted “No Boston Here, Respect our Constitution.” Signs read “New York this is tyranny,” “We need marriage amendment now,” “No Boston Mass.,” “Stop the madness,” “Stop Same Sex Unions,” and “One man + one woman = marriage.”

“I have friends that are homosexuals that I love to pieces, I really do,” Amy Fantoni said, leaning on a stroller. “I just don’t want society to break out… sanctifying these unions when God sanctified it between one man and one woman.”

She brought her two young children to the rally in the cold rain. They need both a mother and a father, she argued, insisting that she is not against gay people, only against gay marriage. “I love them,” she said. “We are all sinners.”

McPhail worried that gay marriage in New York would expose his son to a cultural climate accepting of same-sex relationships.

“They are going to find it acceptable in the newspapers, on television and in the movies and that is an onslaught that very few parents can stand up against,” he said.

Others feared gay marriage would bring nothing less than society’s meltdown.

“We have seen that any time the act of homosexuality has infiltrated a nation that it never causes the people to prosper,” Desiree Bernstein said in an impassioned monologue in the park. “It always spiraled downward. So embracing that in this city, we would be bringing hardship to our children.”

Natalie Guida, a working mother from Staten Island, took off work to attend the rally, determined to stop a stampede of gay marriages.

“A small minority, three percent… is making the decisions in this country because they are single and affluent and moved to positions of power, but… God the Almighty is stronger than all of them and it’s about to change, so prepare yourself,” she said. “Put your seat belt on.”

Indeed, Mattera promised political activism like voter registration drives in churches and online, more press conferences, seminars with religious leaders, old-fashioned lobbying, op-ed articles, media ads and bigger rallies.

“We are going to inform, we are going to inspire, we are going to galvanize the church,” Mattera said at the rally. “This will be our finest hour.” Then the crowd burst into chants of “We’re not going away!”

CAC was exploring legal options, Mattera said. But when attorneys for the group spoke, they offered little legal strategy.

“This is a case that we feel very strongly about,” said Vince McCarthy, a senior counsel for the American Center for Law and Justice (ACLJ), a non-profit law firm. “We intend to do whatever we can to see if this coalition can intervene… and make sure that that decision gets overturned.”

CAC has other backers. Rev. Hector Bonano, the leader of CONLICO, the coalition of Latino evangelical congregations that organized a massive anti gay marriage rally in the Bronx last year, promised another rally to be announced soon. Kevin McCullough of WMCA, a Christian radio network in New York City, was also there, greeting fans at the rally.

Meanwhile, a meager counter-demonstration formed on the steps of City Hall. Less than ten same-sex marriage supporters stood at the top of the steps and held signs praising Judge Ling-Cohan and supporting the Stonewall Democratic Club of New York. Joy Callio, a medical writer, was there because she wants the right to marry the woman of her choice.

“I support their right to express their opinion and I am happy that I am here expressing mine as well,” she said.

Later that day Pride in the Pulpit, a faith-based network of clergy and laypeople from different faiths affiliated with the Empire State Pride Agenda, released an open letter signed by 56 clergy members from across New York.

“We are here to clarify that New York’s faith community is not uniformly opposed to fair and equal treatment of same-sex couples,” the letter said. “We are steadfastly in support of government giving these couples all the same rights and responsibilities as other families… To deny those rights is to engage in discrimination. Discrimination is immoral.”