Is America's oldest civil rights organization, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), sending a mixed message on gay marriage?

Back in the fall, when gay activists were fighting against Proposition 8, the voter initiative that placed a gay marriage ban in the California constitution, the black community splintered on the issue. Many disagreed with the idea that gay marriage – in fact, gay equality as a whole – was a civil rights issue.

America's largest black civil rights group was also divided. While its California chapter came out in opposition to Proposition 8, the national office remained silent.

Then in March, gay activists cheered when NAACP leaders – Chairman Julian Bond and President Ben Jealous – came out publicly in favor of repealing Proposition 8. Jason W. Bartlett, deputy director of the National Black Justice Coalition, a group that lobbies for civil rights for GLBT people of color, called the move “bold” and “historic.”

At a recent speech before the Human Rights Campaign, Bond said: “When someone asks me, 'Are gay rights civil rights?' my answer is always, 'Of course, they are.'” Then adds, “It isn't 'special' to be free from discrimination. It is an ordinary universal entitlement of citizenship.”

Bond has always been an egalitarian. In 2005, at a Virgina fundraiser, he said: “Many gays, many lesbians, worked side by side with me in the civil rights movement. Am I supposed to tell them now thanks for risking their lives and their limbs to help me win my rights but that they are excluded because of the circumstances of their birth? Not a chance.”

“The lessons of the civil rights movement of yesterday ... is that sometimes the simplest of ordinary everyday acts – of taking a seat on a bus, of sitting down at a lunch counter, of applying for a marriage license – sometimes these can have extraordinary consequences, can change the world,” Bond said.

The NAACP had found its voice again and spoke with conviction and passion on the issue of gay rights as civil rights. It was tremendous progress.

But the little known fact that Bond and Jealous were speaking out more as public citizens than leaders of the NAACP would have warmed their detractors. In fact, it appears a vote on gay marriage or outlawing gay marriage among national board members has never taken place.

In a telephone interview with On Top Magazine, Bartlett said his organization's strategic goal with the NAACP was to have the vote take place and affirm the group's position in favor of gay marriage. He would not comment on whether he believed the measure would pass, saying only that “we have strong allies in key places.”

“There is an internal debate and there are a lot of internal politics within the national NAACP right now over this particular issue,” Bartlett, who is also a Connecticut state representative, said. “So this is progress.”

But could the anti-gay marriage bluff and bluster of NAACP national board member Rev. Keith Ratliff seen in Iowa this month be more representative of the NAACP as a whole?

Ratliff, the head of the Iowa/Nebraska chapter of the NAACP, donned a red suit – the new color of the anti-gay marriage movement meant to represent the blood of Jesus Christ – on the steps of the Iowa Capitol and prayed with members of the Iowa Family Policy Center at a rally calling for lawmakers to begin the process of placing a gay marriage ban in the state constitution: “Let them understand, oh God, that your way is the way that we must live, that separation of church and state did not mean that man should live unholy.”

He's given sermons on the issue and even co-authored an editorial.

“To anyone who reads and believes the Bible, there is no room for compromise on the issue of homosexuality,” Ratliff and three clergy write in a Des Moines Register editorial. “To those who look to 'natural law', homosexuality will always be un-natural and un-healthy for a myriad of obvious reasons. ... The Iowa Supreme Court has now issued its opinion, but it fundamentally changes nothing. Now it is up to the people and their elected officials to correct the court's error through the constitutional amendment process.” The four religious leaders called for “biblically justified civil resistance.”

“There is a lot of homophobia in the NAACP,” California Conference President Alice Huffman told The American Prospect. “There are a lot of Christians who feel threatened.”

Bartlett agreed: “There are many [civil rights organizations] that are dominated by the clergy. ... And that keeps those civil rights organizations either standing still or actually being somewhat oppressive.”

Bartlett makes the distinction that NAACP leaders do not favor gay marriage; instead they are against outlawing gay marriage by constitutional amendment – a distinction clearly meant to pacify religious leaders involved in the organization. But in California and Iowa, without a gay marriage ban in the constitution there is or would be gay marriage. And Bond's own words seem to belie that notion: “applying for a marriage license” is something that can “change the world.”

NAACP leaders, however, have kept mum about its anti-gay marriage Iowa dissenter. And it's only after being pressed on the issue that Bartlett agrees that he would like to see some pressure applied against Ratliff.

“Are you asking me if I would like to see [Ratliff] marginalized?” Bartlett asks. “Yes, I would. I'm hopeful that people in Iowa will remove him as soon as possible.” Then adds that his organization is only interested in shoring up support for an official endorsement on gay marriage and/or gay rights from the NAACP.

“The NAACP as a civil rights institution has made tremendous progress in the last six months over this issue. And what I've seen is an organization in transition. I see an organization that for many years has been either silent or opposed to gay rights or to anything that was affirming to GLBT people. And now I see an organization that is taking a step forward in recognizing that many of the issues that GLBT people are fighting for are civil rights,” Bartlett says, then repeats, “So that's progress.”

The question is: Who represents the heart and soul of the NAACP?