The Rev. Liz Lerner Maclay, minister of the Unitarian Universalist Church of Silver Spring, Md., was just about to start a six-month sabbatical when the news came down from the Maryland attorney general: Marriages performed for same-sex couples in jurisdictions where same-sex marriage was legal, would now be recognized by the state of Maryland. Maclay’s phone immediately started to ring. Several couples, fearing that this would be a brief window of opportunity that would soon be shut, were eager to tie the knot. And they wanted Maclay to do the ceremony. Maclay, in turn, was eager to help. “It was a social justice issue,” she said, “but it was also doing something for people I loved.”
During a sabbatical committee meeting just four days before her sabbatical started at the beginning of March, Maclay decided to do several of the wedding ceremonies all in one day while she’d still be in town. She chose Tuesday, March 9, which was the first day that legal weddings for same-sex couples could be done in neighboring Washington, D.C. Several of the couples immediately gave her the thumbs up.
Each of the three people on her sabbatical committee then volunteered to organize an aspect of the celebration. Ed Johnson took on the reception, Eric Kelderman handled communications and publicity, and Rebecca Wilson Kopatich did the scheduling, which included communicating with the couples. Before the meeting was over, Maclay knew that the day of weddings would be a success. “I knew it would be a day we’d never forget, something that would be historic in the life of our congregation,” she said.
Maclay called her friend the Rev. Lillie Mae Henley, minister of the Universalist National Memorial Church in Washington, D.C., about using her church for the weddings. National Memorial Church was the “parent church” of the Silver Springs congregation, which was founded in 1952. Henley was immediately enthusiastic. “I told her that we’d supply the balloons and the coffee!” she said.
Ten couples signed up for the ceremony, six of whom were members of the Silver Spring congregation. Each couple would get a half-hour ceremony, starting at 4 p.m., followed by a “rolling reception” that included an official announcement of the couple and a first dance. Maclay supplied a template wedding ceremony to help couples plan.
Right from the start, volunteers from both congregations sprang into action. Silver Spring congregants brought food and drink, took photos, and provided live music. Members of National Memorial Church helped with decorations, refreshments, logistics, and cleanup. Congregants from both churches came to attend the ceremonies and some ended up staying all evening. Henley estimated that there were 400–600 guests who attended the reception at some point.
“This was not a gift that straight people were giving to gay people,” said Maclay. “Or a gift some people gave another. It was the greatest gift the church could give itself. It was a gift we all gave to one another.”
Janne Harrelson and Deborah Weiner were one of the couples who decided to wed that day. Together for 24 years, and long-time members of the Silver Spring church, the couple had never had a commitment ceremony and did not have plans to be married. “When this opportunity came up suddenly, it took us some time to think about it, process it, and ask ourselves some serious questions,” Weiner said. “Then when we decided that yes, this is the right time and the right thing to do, we both felt very happy.” The couple was especially eager to be married by Maclay, with whom they have a close bond.
Harrelson and Weiner have a 15-year-old daughter who took part in the ceremony. The wedding party also included two nieces who served as flower girls. Relatives from both near and far came to attend the ceremony.
When the pair was announced later in the reception hall, the band swung into the Etta James classic, “At Last.”
“It was really very special for each individual couple,” Weiner said, “not only for themselves but because they were in the embrace of this large community. Everybody felt very cared-for, very special, and very thrilled to be able to do this in the District.”
The Rev. Rob Hardies, senior minister of All Souls Church, Unitarian in Washington, D.C., where the groundbreaking marriage legislation was signed into law on December 18, 2009, said his phone has been ringing off the hook with requests for weddings. Some are D.C. residents, he said, while others are coming from other states. Many are eager to have the ceremony at All Souls, he noted, because of the church’s role in leading the campaign to legalize same-sex marriage in the District.
Hardies worked with the Rev. Christine Y. Wiley and the Rev. Dennis W. Wiley, co-ministers of the predominantly African American Covenant Baptist Church, to form D.C. Clergy United, a multicultural interfaith clergy group to support marriage equality. When the coalition sponsored a petition, called the “Declaration for Religious Support for Marriage Equality,” almost 200 D.C.-area clergy representing churches, synagogues, community groups, and divinity schools signed on. The declaration paved the way to the bill’s passage by the D.C. City Council on December 15.
The result is so many nuptials that All Souls has appointed a second wedding coordinator. Although some fear that this legislation could still be invalidated, there’s a sense that love has won out, Hardies said.
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