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On this issue, allies are on opposite sides

They have stood together on many an issue, from protecting welfare benefits to curbing youth violence.

But earlier this month, the Rev. Ray Hammond and US Senator Edward M. Kennedy sat in a Senate hearing room on opposite sides of another major question of the day: a proposed constitutional amendment to ban gays and lesbians from legal marriage.

Hammond, pastor of Bethel AME Church and one of the Boston's most prominent community leaders, supports the amendment because he believes same-sex marriage would multiply the number of fatherless families. Kennedy opposes the amendment.

That difference of opinion has surprised and distressed some of Boston's gay and lesbian activists, who argue that Hammond's opposition to same-sex marriage is at odds with his long record as a liberal on other social issues.

"A lot of people locally were shocked," said Mary Bonauto, a lawyer for Gay & Lesbian Advocates & Defenders. "He's obviously a very impressive individual and he does incredibly important work, but it's puzzling at a minimum to understand why this is going to be part of his activism."

But Hammond's stand has delighted opponents of same-sex marriage, who see hard-to-pigeonhole supporters like him as the best way to broaden support for their efforts to restrict marriage to heterosexual unions.

Hammond, president of the acclaimed Ten Point Coalition to combat the problems of black and Latino youths and a board member of the Black Ministerial Alliance, the Boston Plan for Excellence, and Catholic Charities of Boston -- has made allies across the political spectrum.

A medical doctor, Hammond, 51, left the emergency room for his Jamaica Plain church in 1993; he is close to Democratic Mayor Thomas M. Menino and Republican Governor Mitt Romney.

"He is difficult to cram into an ideological box on the right or the left," said Matt Daniels, president of the national Alliance for Marriage, which drafted the Federal Marriage Amendment, and a friend of Hammond.

Still, Hammond cannot fathom why anybody could think his testimony unforeseen, or read it as antigay. "I'm surprised they're surprised," he said. "This is a view I've articulated for a number of years."

The amendment, which has been cosponsored by 86 members of Congress, including seven Democrats, says, "Marriage in the United States shall consist only of the union of a man and a woman."

It requires that no constitutions or laws "shall be construed to require that marital status or the legal incidents thereof be conferred upon unmarried couples or groups."

The proposed amendment to the US Constitution comes at a time of enormous activity in gay rights issues: Last year, Vermont extended many rights to same-sex couples by legalizing civil unions; in June, the US Supreme Court overturned antisodomy laws in Texas; the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court is considering whether to grant marriage licenses to gay couples; two Canadian provinces this year granted gay and lesbian couples the right to marry; and the state Senate is preparing to push a law to recognize civil unions in Massachusetts.

Supporters of the amendment say it concerns only marriage and would not compromise other rights for gays and lesbians. Opponents say it goes much further than that, prohibiting not just marriage, but such benefits as bereavement leave and visitation rights in hospitals for gay and lesbian couples. President Bush has said he might support such a measure.

In his testimony before Congress on Sept. 4, Hammond said he supported the amendment in the interests of combating "the epidemic level of fatherlessness in America."

He said his stance reflects that of the community he serves, that the "understanding of marriage as the union of male and female is so fundamental to the African-American community that over 70 percent of all African-Americans in the United States would currently favor a constitutional amendment" like the Federal Marriage Amendment.

"The courts in America are poised to erase the legal road map to marriage and the family," he testified. "If allowed to continue, this revolution will deprive future generations the . . . road map they will need to have a fighting chance to find their way out of the social wilderness of family disintegration."

Without a definition of marriage that restricts it to heterosexual unions, the institution is weakened, Hammond said in an interview. "Marriage is more than a contract and just the love between two people," he said. "[It is the] place where one of the critical divides in the human race is worked on, and hopefully reconciled. This is where kids can see: this is how men and women work together."

Hammond, a married father of two daughters, took great pains to point out that he is in favor of extending many rights to gays and lesbians that heterosexual partners take for granted: "I am not accusing gay and lesbian people of being responsible for the breakdown of the American family," he said.

Copies of Hammond's testimony have been doing the rounds for days among gay and lesbian activists, said Gary Daffin, cochairman of the Gay and Lesbian Political Caucus.

"People are definitely talking about it," said Daffin, who also works on HIV prevention, sometimes with Hammond's Ten Point Coalition. "This is someone who testified from Boston, who is not a nut, and someone that a lot of us respect."

Several gay activists said they would contact Hammond to explain their position to him.

"Everyone says that if he understood how harmful the amendment would be to gay families, he would never support it," said Arline Isaacson , a board member of MassEquality, a coalition of gay- and lesbian-rights advocacy groups. "Talking about fatherlessness is so completely and totally off topic to this issue. It is a typical strategy of the radical right to use ministers and have them talk about fatherlessness because it confuses the issue."

But Hammond has made his views known before, signing on to efforts to amend the Massachusetts Constitution to bar same-sex marriage. He has been a valuable ally, said Ron Crews, president of the Massachusetts Family Institute, which has sponsored some of those efforts. Though he disagrees with Hammond on the issue, Kennedy said he was comfortable with the pastor's commitment to gay and lesbian rights. "I'm a big booster and supporter of what he does in the community," Kennedy said. "We may not agree on all same-sex issues . . . but I believe he understands there ought to be protections for gays and lesbians."

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