ATLANTA - At a doughnut shop near downtown Atlanta, two black men chat over coffee. One is gay, the other straight. They agree on this: Gay marriage could be as soundly rejected by black Democrats as it probably will be among white Republicans.
James Johnson, the gay man, says it's his business what he does in his bedroom. But the 49-year-old cleaner isn't sure how to vote on Georgia's constitutional amendment defining marriage as between a man and a woman.
"I'm gay myself, but I'm torn. It's a spiritual issue," he said. "To me, it's not a civil rights issue because it's a lifestyle choice."
As Georgia and three other Southern states with some of nation's largest black populations consider gay marriage amendments next week, the votes of black people could determine success or failure. In a voting bloc sometimes considered almost monolithic - overwhelmingly choosing Democrats - the gay marriage question has black voters and churches divided.
In Georgia, the black legislative caucus opposed the ban, calling the proposed amendment discrimination. But the amendment was ultimately approved because a handful of black lawmakers split with their caucus and voted for the Republican-sponsored amendment.
In Mississippi, which will also consider a same-sex marriage amendment, the amendment was largely supported by black lawmakers. But the only legislators to vote against it were black.
Outside major cities in the South, black voters are even more reluctant to equate gay rights with the civil-rights struggle.
Black legislators from rural areas talk of personal turmoil over the gay marriage matter. Some of them say they were suspicious of the amendments. But when they considered facing scorn from the preachers back home, many rural black lawmakers voted along with the GOP.
But ministers who have spoken against the same-sex marriage amendments say they're not approving of homosexuality.
"Like most of my colleagues, I have misgivings about same-sex marriage," said the Rev. Timothy McDonald, the pastor at First Iconium Baptist Church in Atlanta. "But I have misgivings about discrimination and ostracism, too."
The political power of black churches means the four pending amendment votes could hinge on how many ministers take the Rev. McDonald's tack.
"Black voters can be very socially conservative," said Emory University professor Robert Brown, who studies black politics. "You won't see a monolithic black opinion on this question."
file/associated pressThe Rev. Timothy McDonald addresses a rally in Washington, D.C. The Atlanta pastor says he doesn't condone homosexuality but is suspicious of the proposed amendments on marriage.