By Deborah Quinn Hensel
HOUSTON (Reuters) - The biggest U.S. civil rights group's two-month-old decision to support same-sex marriage has opened rifts at its convention in Houston this week, pitting religious conservatives against political progressives.
The 103-year-old National Association for the Advancement of Colored People's support for same-sex marriage is "a continuation of its historic commitment to equal protection under the law," the organization said in a statement when the resolution was approved at a board meeting in Miami on May 19.
Since then a furor has erupted among members unrivaled since the group passed a resolution in 2010 that called on Tea Party groups to repudiate racist elements within their ranks, said Anita Russell, a member of the NAACP's national board and president of its Kansas City, Missouri, branch.
"But that was from the outside," she said of the controversy. "This is internal."
A few local chapter leaders -- and the Reverend Keith Ratliff of the NAACP national board -- resigned because of the resolution, which passed 10 days after President Barack Obama announced his support for same-sex marriage.
With his announcement, Obama, who is not attending the NAACP convention, made a political bet in advance of the November 6 presidential election against likely Republican opponent Mitt Romney, who addressed convention attendees on Wednesday. Romney told the audience he will defend "traditional marriage."
The split in opinions on the resolution was evident among NAACP members attending this week's convention. Rashida Martin, an NAACP chapter officer at Indiana University Bloomington, said she agreed with the action taken by the country's largest civil rights group.
"The world is changing, and we should open our minds a little," she said.
The Reverend James Nash, pastor of St. Paul's Missionary Baptist Church in Houston, said he disagreed with the resolution and that many people in his congregation called him to say they were outraged about the stance taken by both the NAACP and Obama.
"I've got gay people in my congregation, but I would not marry them," Nash said. "That's not the will of God, but who am I to tell them what lifestyle choices they can make? As a preacher, I have to preach against that, but I'm not going to hate on anyone."
Polls show that there has been an increase in support for same-sex marriage among Americans. A recent Gallup poll said that half of Americans believe same-sex couples should be allowed to marry. Six states and the District of Columbia allow same-sex marriage.
But until recently, polls also showed that support for gay marriage among African-Americans lagged the general population. The support among blacks has risen since Obama's announcement, polls show.
Russell said the resolution is in keeping with the group's mission to support equal rights for all people.
"If we explain that enough to our members and supporters, they will understand why we took the stance we did," Russell said. "We're not asking them to change their beliefs. It's not a moral or a religious issue."
'HIJACKING CIVIL RIGHTS'
Ratliff, the national board member who resigned in protest, said at an Iowa statehouse rally last year that "deviant behavior is not the same thing as being denied the right to vote because of the color of one's skin."
"Gay community, stop hijacking the civil rights movement," he said.
Another convention attendee, the Reverend Elston McCowan, pastor of Star Grace Missionary Baptist Church in St. Louis, Missouri, said his local chapter and his church both had a mixed reaction to the resolution. Some people were concerned that the association had taken such a controversial position, he said.
McCowan declined to say what he thought of the resolution but noted: "I don't always agree with every position that the NAACP takes."
(This story corrects to say six states allow same-sex marriage, not eight)
(Editing by Corrie MacLaggan and Cynthia Osterman)