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A report from the front lines of the culture wars

Why my church voted to support same-sex marriage.
By James Ishmael Ford
3.28.11

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(© Ryerson Clark / iStockphoto.com)

Standing there, not sitting, holding the phone to my ear, I’d forgotten I could be so nervous speaking in public. I was listening to the end of a conversation on a local talk radio program, waiting to be interviewed about marriage equality and the First Unitarian Church of Providence, Rhode Island, where I am the minister. Finally there was a click and a young woman said, “Reverend Ford? They’re now finishing this segment. There’ll be a commercial break and then Gene will introduce you.” That’s about when I started hyperventilating.

As the program progressed I never fully caught my breath. I was on top of the material, and I believe what I had to say was on point, possibly even persuasive, at least here and there. But the issue was so important to me that, even though the interviewer was no right-wing zealot, I worried I was going to screw it up. My spouse Jan, who was sitting knitting nearby, reassured me later that I wasn’t nearly as bad as I felt I’d been.

The interview was the result of my church’s public support for same-sex marriage in the midst of our state’s current struggle over marriage equality. At this writing both House and Senate Judiciary Committees have held hearings, and each is waiting on votes to move to the floor. The House we feel pretty good about. We’re holding our breath regarding the Senate. So close, it all can go either way.

Our congregation has focused on letting the public know that people of faith are not of one mind on this subject. This is important in a state with an overwhelmingly Roman Catholic population, whose bishop has been vocal and vigorous in opposing same-sex marriage. The issue is supposed to be about civil marriage; that religious communities are up to their eyeballs in the struggle speaks to the ironies rife in our nation’s concept of separation of church and state. But ironic or not, as we discuss strategy with marriage equality proponents, our part is important, maybe even critical.

Starting with Massachusetts, New England has led the nation in the advancement of marriage equality, with three states in the region now granting same-sex couples the same right to marry as male-female couples. Only Maine and Rhode Island do not allow same-sex couples to marry. After years of dueling bills being introduced—one in favor of marriage equality, the other a “defense of marriage act” that seeks to prevent marriage equality—the quiet agreement among legislators here has been to let both bills die in committee. This year has seen a major shift. The previous governor had vowed a veto should a marriage equality bill land on his desk. The new governor, though, has made the issue a moral priority and has promised to support the legislation as it moves through the legislature and to proudly sign it into law.

Unitarian Universalists in Rhode Island have thrown their hearts into the struggle over the past several years. In 2007, the Rev. William Zelazny, our district executive, helped form the Religious Coalition for Marriage Equality in Rhode Island. When I arrived here just shy of three years ago I was recruited to the steering committee. Other ministers and lay members have been active in various places, writing letters, making phone calls, attending rallies, and encouraging others to do the same.

Twenty years ago, the Rev. Thomas Ahlburn, then the minister of the First Unitarian Church of Providence, performed the first known union service in the state. Since the advent of pride parades, UU congregations have been prominent participants. For the last several years, First Unitarian Church has even had a float. (Well, a pickup truck where the congregation’s kids could sit and wave at the crowd.)

This year, wanting to support the new push for marriage equality, First Unitarian Church decided it was necessary to take a public stand. We’re a democratic church, so taking a stand meant a lot more than the minister speaking out: It meant asking every member to vote. The church’s Standing on the Side of Love Committee presented a motion to the Prudential Committee, the church’s governing body. The Prudential Committee endorsed it unanimously and set a date for a congregational vote. The text was simple enough:

Whereas, a just society guarantees to all of its citizens certain civil rights and, Whereas, every adult deserves the opportunity to attain the legal protections and safeguards gained through civil marriage and, Whereas, the First Unitarian Church of Providence, Rhode Island, affirms and promotes the Unitarian Universalist Association’s Principles of: The inherent worth and dignity of every person, Justice equity and compassion in human relations, and World community, liberty, peace and justice for all,

We, the congregation of the First Unitarian Church of Providence, by a vote of our membership, endorse marriage equality in the state of Rhode Island. Further, we call upon Rhode Island’s legislators to pass this legislation and for the Governor of Rhode Island to sign it into law.

We don’t take stands like this often, and the process is onerous. First, a vote is taken at a called meeting of the congregation, which must decide whether to forward the proposal as a mail ballot to the entire congregation. If a majority agrees, then the ballot is mailed. One third of the entire membership must respond for the votes to be counted. Then two thirds of the ballots must vote in the affirmative. (A vote to oppose going to war with Iraq in 2003 fell just short of this two-thirds requirement. The last time the congregation took such a public stand in the name of the church was in favor of open housing forty years ago.)

Of the 160 people who attended the meeting, one voted against moving to a mail ballot. (That individual wanted me to know with certainty that his vote was only against the church taking any political stance, and that he himself had already called his legislators expressing his desire that the bills pass.) We have 411 voting members. We received 263 ballots. Two of those ballots were blank; seven were opposed.

We called a press conference. There, drawing upon talking points provided by the Unitarian Universalist Association’s Standing on the Side of Love campaign, I said, “Homosexuality is not the sin. Homophobia is the sin.” It was repeated numerous times on television. The bishop felt obliged to reiterate his stance that the majority of religious communities oppose marriage equality, qualifying his previous statements about the unanimity of people of faith. That’s how I ended up on that radio talk show, hyperventilating.

As I write this, the outcome for this year is far from certain. Rallies for and against gay marriage are well attended. Individuals and groups have been seriously lobbying. Many in the legislature wish fervently this cup would pass from their lips. Votes may come as early as this week.

What I am certain of, as certain as one can be in this world of flux, is that marriage equality is at hand. And, when that day comes, in the state of Rhode Island Unitarian Universalists can say they—we—have had a significant part in establishing this civil right into law.


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