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Religious leaders divided on Obama's gay marriage stance

For months, conservative religious leaders have been mounting stronger campaigns to oppose gay marriage. In January, a coalition of nearly  40 religious leaders, encompassing several faiths, released an open letter warning of the peril of legalizing same-sex unions. And this week, conservatives celebrated a victory in North Carolina, where voters banned same-sex unions.

But now President Obama has publicly stated his support of gay marriage, and religious conservatives see it as a political game changer.

"I believe the timing was clearly to stop the momentum of people who are pro marriage. So I'm a little disappointed, in that he's had this position for 20 years," Bishop Harry Jackson, founder of the High Impact Leadership Coalition, said.

Robert Jeffress, senior pastor of First Baptist Dallas Church, says he's also not surprised at the president's position, but he's angry that the Bible was used to justify it.

"The fact is, Jesus said in Matthew 19 that God's plan for marriage was one man with one woman for life. And so by embracing same-sex marriage, President Obama has really contradicted the Jesus that he says he follows," Jeffress said.

Faith groups made up of minority members are also reacting. The Rev. Samuel Rodriguez, president of the National Hispanic Leadership Conference, said in a statement, "It is our Christian faith that requires us to uphold the biblical definition of marriage as a sacred union between one man and one woman."

He goes on to say, "I pray that his support of gay marriage does not exacerbate the growing intolerance of a Christian worldview."

But not all religious leaders agree. Rabbi Irwin Kula, president of the National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership, says the Jewish community does not interpret the Bible literally. But he does expect it will be divided on the president's stance.  

"Judaism, like all the major religions, has very major splits on these sorts of social issues," Kula said. "So in the most traditionalist community, the orthodox community, there will be opposition."

Kula himself supports gay marriage and supports the president in publicly stating his position. "The president went through the personal journey that is a religious and spiritual journey that millions of Americans are on," he said. "That is, to come to understand that people who are different, people who are other, are actually deserving of equal rights."

But Jackson, who is African-American, says gay marriage is not a civil rights issue, but fundamentally about redefining the institution of marriage, and he thinks the president has miscalculated his clout with the black faith community, which tends to skew conservative on social issues like gay marriage.

"We are concerned that this is a bridge too far. I think it will backlash on the president," he said.

But not all black religious leaders agree. Bishop Leonard Goin, who heads a Pentecostal congregation in Philadelphia, said in published reports that although he doesn't support the president's views on same-sex marriage, he doesn’t think it will give black voters cause to vote against Obama in November.

The bottom line, says Tony Evans of Oak Cliff Bible Church in Dallas, is that the fight over gay marriage goes much deeper than equal rights or political maneuvering. It's about the fundamental building block of the country.

"The saga of a nation is the saga of its family written large. And whoever owns the family, owns the future. It's a staggeringly important issue," Evans said.

It's an important issue that will play out over the next few months on the political stage.  

"Let's face it, there have been a lot of evangelical Christians that have had some questions about Mitt Romney, and I was one of those," Jeffress said. "I think President Obama has given Mitt Romney a wonderful fight today and will allow him to energize not only the evangelicals, but those with traditional social values."    

Lauren Green currently serves as Fox News Channel's (FNC) chief religion correspondent based in the New York bureau. She joined FNC in 1996.

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