Raymond Busche says that when he fired off an angry email on May 19 to his 91st District representative, Rep. Jalila Jefferson-Bullock, he never expected a response. 'I just wanted to express my opinion,' he says.
Just one day after both the House and Senate adopted an amendment that would exclude gay couples from having legally recognized marriages in Louisiana, Busche wrote to Jefferson-Bullock's legislative email address. 'Shame on you for voting Yes on the Marriage Bill,' he wrote. 'I can't believe that we (as a people) are going to have a Constitutional Amendment that will further alienate each other &138; it is truly disturbing. Hopefully, the people will vote it down, but the South does not have a strong history on supporting rights for everyone &138; Anyway, you do not have my vote come next election.'
Jefferson-Bullock wrote back a few hours later in a candid and heartfelt response that Busche says 'shocked' him. The letter also serves as a rare admission from a local elected official about the forces that might influence a vote for a bill the official views as wrong.
'I have voted in favor of anti-discrimination bills throughout my short tenure in the legislature,' Jefferson-Bullock wrote. 'I even co-authored a bill banning discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation this session. I'm sorry that I no longer have your vote. Though I'm sure that it is difficult to understand the enormous pressures that we face here, I want you to know that they do exist. Unfortunately, I face enormous pressure from my pastor, Bishop [Paul] Morton, who has launched a national campaign in favor of an amendment to the federal Constitution. This may sound like a silly excuse to you, but I just wanted you to know what my reasoning is. I'm sorry that I no longer have your vote and I'm sorry that I had to vote that way. I just hope that you can understand that I do not support discrimination and I hope that the bill is ultimately found unconstitutional.'
Busche didn't write back to Jefferson-Bullock, but instead forwarded her response to Gambit Weekly. 'I was shocked at how candid she was and that she shared that she thought this was unconstitutional or at least she hoped it would be found unconstitutional -- and yet she was voting in favor of it. That's not a very good quality in a legislator,' he says. 'It's disappointing that her vote was swayed so heavily as a result of pressure from her pastor, given her own opinion that it is both discriminatory and unconstitutional &138; I think the voters in her district should know that's how she voted.'
Jefferson-Bullock, contacted at the Capitol in the midst of her first legislative session, at first didn't want to comment on the specifics of the email. 'The email speaks for itself, and it's a very tough decision that I had to make, and I agonized over it,' she says. 'I am disappointed in Gambit for printing it because it was an email sent directly to one of my constituents as a courtesy to him, to explain why I did what I did. I'm not sure what his motivation was in forwarding that to Gambit.'
Later, Jefferson-Bullock called back to add to her comment: 'I was using the wrong word -- it's not &140;pressure,' it's a duty to my constituents, a duty to them to do the job that I was elected to do.' Jefferson-Bullock, a freshman legislator, won election to House District 91 with 59 percent of the vote in last year's race against incumbent and fellow Democrat Rosalind Peychaud.
'The pressure of which I spoke in the email really relates more to the wishes of my constituents rather than that of my pastor,' Jefferson-Bullock says. 'I received a large amount of email and phone calls and requests from them, and my job as a representative is to do what my constituents want.
'It has nothing to do with my personal opinion. In this case, they overwhelmingly wanted me to vote for this constitutional amendment, and it grieved me to vote for it. But throughout my campaign, I indicated that I would come up to Baton Rouge and vote the way they wanted me to. I know they would have wanted me to vote this way.' The legislation that Jefferson-Bullock mentioned co-authoring in her email, House Bill 1229, would prohibit job discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation. (That bill ultimately failed in the House.)
Jefferson-Bullock declined further comment about Morton, her pastor at Greater St. Stephen Full Gospel Baptist Church, except to say he hadn't directly spoken with her about gay marriage, but had preached against it from the pulpit.
ACCORDING TO MORTON'S PERSONAL personal Web site (www.paulmorton.org), Greater St. Stephen serves more than 20,000 members in its three churches, one of which is in Jefferson-Bullock's district.
Morton is among a number of powerful preachers whose churches are prohibited by U.S. tax code from influencing a political campaign through donations or endorsements, but who nonetheless exercise a significant amount of political muscle. Morton, and other pastors, can supply donations, volunteers and votes from their congregations. And even though the Internal Revenue Service bans ministers from partisan politicking, many pastors tread the fine line that separates expressing their personal opinion from overtly endorsing a candidate from the pulpit.
Morton's reach is particularly broad. In addition to his position at Greater St. Stephen, he is the international presiding bishop of the Full Gospel Baptist Church Fellowship. He also has written several books, recorded a number of CDs as a soloist and with gospel choirs, and appears frequently in national Christian radio and TV shows.
Recently, Morton has been in local headlines as a spokesman for the Greater New Orleans Coalition of Ministers, a group of prominent black pastors who criticized Mayor Ray Nagin earlier this year for everything from his economic policies (the coalition accused Nagin of failing to steer as much work toward minority-owned businesses as had his predecessor, Marc Morial) to Nagin's allegiance to the black community (Morton called the mayor a 'white man in black skin'). Nagin met with the coalition in a private fence-mending meeting in March, after which the ministers said they now believed the mayor was taking their primary concerns seriously.
In May, Morton made national headlines. He joined a group of well-known African-American ministers from around the country, organized by the conservative Traditional Values Coalition (TVC) to convince Congressional Black Caucus members to vote for a U.S. constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriages and civil unions. TVC was recently described by an American Civil Liberties Union spokesman as 'the most active anti-gay group there is.' It wears such distinctions as a badge of honor. The group's Web site, www.traditionalvalues.org, comments, 'We take these statements as compliments on the work we're doing to preserve traditional marriage and biblical morality.'
In a May 17 press conference in Washington, D.C., shortly after the announcement that the TVC and the coalition of black ministers would be working together, Morton told national media organizations that 'You insult African Americans when you say that this is a civil-rights issue. I can't change the color of my skin, but you can change your lifestyle.' He rejected suggestions that homosexuality could be biologically predestined.
'Same-sex marriages are very unpopular among blacks,' notes political analyst Ed Renwick, director of the Institute of Politics at Loyola University. 'You usually don't find blacks opposed to civil-rights legislation, and many blacks don't see it as a civil-rights issue; they see it as a moral and religious issue. Thus, Bishop Morton is on pretty solid ground.'
THE GAY-MARRIAGE DEBATE ISN'T a political issue, Morton says. It's just a matter of following the word of God. Asked by Gambit Weekly whether either of his coalitions on the local or national levels could deliver or suppress the number of votes that could decide an election, he says simply, 'We just want [politicians] to listen to what God is saying on this particular issue, and I hope that they're listening. I want them to really understand us clearly because this really affects us as pastors.'
He says the national coalition of ministers represents an as-yet untold number of parishioners. 'I think it would go into the millions,' Morton says, since most of those pastors preside over enormous congregations. He estimates that the local coalition of ministers represents about 60,000 to 70,000 New Orleans-area churchgoers.
Presented with Jefferson-Bullock's dilemma -- her belief she had to vote against what she thought was right, versus what he and others wanted her to do -- Morton says he would encourage Jefferson-Bullock or any politician to vote against his or her conscience, or against constituents' wishes, if it meant voting in accord with the Bible. 'We allow our personal feelings and sympathizing with others [to affect decisions], and it's not about that,' he says. 'It's about hearing the voice of God and following the word of God.'
Morton says he welcomes any politician into his church regardless of his or her stance on gay marriage, but emphasizes he's going to be focused on the issue at the national level in coming weeks. He is trying to arrange a meeting with U.S. Rep. William Jefferson -- Jefferson-Bullock's father and the only Louisiana member of the Congressional Black Caucus -- to discuss the federal marriage amendment.
Morton didn't say whether the elder Jefferson, also a parishioner, would automatically lose his political support should he vote in favor of gay unions: 'I'd rather talk to him first before we would make decisions on that,' Morton says. 'We're setting that up as soon as possible.'
Jefferson, a New Orleans Democrat, has been supportive of gay-rights issues, though he did vote for the 1996 Defense of Marriage Act (which denied federal recognition of same-sex marriages and allows states to refuse to recognize marriages legalized in other states).
Jefferson didn't respond to calls seeking comment. It's clear that he considers churches a crucial area of support, though. During his unsuccessful 1999 bid for governor, he asked hundreds of preachers around the state to observe 'William Jefferson for Governor Day' in their churches and to distribute campaign contribution envelopes throughout their congregations.
But if he doesn't support a federal amendment to ban gay marriage, could fallout from Morton and others shake his base in the black community? That remains to be seen, says Loyola's Renwick. 'It's a very unusual situation to have a position where black ministers and black politicians are on different sides,' he says. 'Usually they have been in sync. So this is a new situation; there is no precedent.'
Renwick notes that more black voters are making their decisions independent of churches and black political organizations. However, he says, African-American ministers are enjoying a revival of the political influence they had held prior to the late 1970s, before such organizations began to dominate the community.
'The churches' power was lessened by the advent of SOUL (the Southern Organization for Unified Leadership), COUP (Organized Community of United People), and LIFE (Louisiana Independent Federation of Electors) and groups like that,' Renwick says. 'Then, toward the end of the 1990s, it seemed the power shifted more back toward the church and the organizations' power decreased.'
THE VOTE ON SAME-SEX MARRIAGE put Jefferson-Bullock in the same uncomfortable position faced by many Catholic legislators whose church leaders believe they should be denied communion at Mass because their votes for issues such as legal abortion contradict church doctrine. Such Catholic lawmakers, which include Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry, have argued that they are obligated to vote the way their constituents want them to vote, even if it runs counter to the church's teachings.
Jefferson-Bullock says that in this instance, her personal views differed from those of her church and most of her constituents, and the latter opinions ultimately won. 'This has been the toughest vote, and unfortunately it's one in which several of us were placed in an unenviable situation,' she says. 'Hardly anyone wanted to vote on it, but you can't get up and take a walk when that issue comes up. We had to vote.' Raymond Busche, the constituent who emailed Jefferson, says the freshman representative has still lost his support. "I have no respect for her as a legislator, knowing she would vote that way, based on the fact she thinks it's unconstitutional," he says. "She's saying she hopes the courts shoot it down or the people shoot it down. I'm hoping my legislator would have stopped it first."