Congregations and individual UUs active in the fight for marriage equality.
The Washington, D.C., City Council also voted April 7 in favor of allowing same-sex marriages performed in other states to be recognized in the nation’s capital, where domestic partnerships are already legal. That action, if approved by Mayor Adrian Fenty, will be sent to Congress for a vote.
The Rev. Mark Stringer, minister of the First Unitarian Church of Des Moines, helped precipitate the decision in Iowa. In August 2007, he married Sean Fritz and Tim McQuillan during an hours-long window of time between a county court ruling legalizing same–sex marriage in Polk County and a stay that prevented any other weddings.
The unanimous decision Friday of the state Supreme Court brought a wave of euphoria to supporters of gay marriage, said Stringer. Interviewed three days after the ruling, he repeated a statement he’d made several times since the decision. "It's an amazing time to be an Iowan, to be on the cutting edge of equality and making love an Iowa value."
Stringer said he’d gotten a few calls from people wanting to get married, but he noted that there is no sense of panic as there had been in California last year, where the right to marry was granted for a short period of time. In November, California voters narrowly approved Proposition 8, restricting marriage to opposite-sex couples.
In Iowa, opponents of same-sex marriage would have to bring a constitutional amendment before the legislature in two consecutive years. Stringer said it would be at least 2011 before such a measure could come before Iowans for a vote.
“I’d like to think that a couple of years will demonstrate that marriage equality is a positive thing for Iowa,” said Stringer. “I don’t think that by that time people will have the enthusiasm to overturn it. Once you give people civil rights it will be difficult to take them away.”
He said his email has been uniformly positive since the court decision. He said one email, from a gay couple in his congregation, moved him more than others. “They wanted to get married and I suggested a date. They said, ‘That would be good. That’s our 30th anniversary.’ It’s heartbreaking that it’s taken so long for them to be able to be recognized as a legal couple.”
Iowa has a history of granting equal rights well ahead of other states. In 1839 the Iowa Supreme Court rejected slavery on behalf of a freed slave in Iowa. In 1868 it ruled that “separate but equal” schools had no place in Iowa. The following year it became the first state to admit women to the practice of law. In 1873 it outlawed racial discrimination in public accommodations.
Two of the plaintiffs are Unitarian Universalists, Otter Dreaming and Bill Musser, of Decorah, Iowa. Both helped found the Northeast Iowa UU Fellowship in Decorah. Dreaming is fellowship coordinator and director of music, and Musser has been a longtime lay leader and a board chair for the 54-member fellowship.
Together for eight years now, they had a civil union ceremony in Vermont in 2002. “When we got back home we decided we’d like more than that,” said Dreaming. They contacted several groups that were pushing for marriage equality and ended up as one of six couples who applied for marriage licenses, and were turned down, at the Polk County Recorder’s office in Des Moines in 2005 .
Following the Supreme Court decision they’ve been on a whirlwind of interviews and appearances. “We’re really happy to be part of this moment,” said Dreaming. “But we’ll also be happy to get back to normal.”
Musser said people in Decorah and elsewhere have been very supportive. “We’re just another couple in town. People are happy for us.” The pair have been invited to speak at area schools and colleges. “We feel a responsibility to be visible,” said Dreaming, “in part because we remember how it was for us, growing up.” Dreaming grew up in a small town in Iowa and Musser in a small town in southern Minnesota.
Musser said Iowa has always seemed progressive. “When we had our civil union we sent engagement notices to all the small town papers we’d been associated with in this area. They all carried our picture and announcement. And this was well before the New York Times started carrying same-sex engagement stories. We’re small town guys and these small towns in northeast Iowa are continuing to support us, and support us in wonderful ways.”
Added Dreaming, “I think Iowa is feeling a certain amount of pride and rightly so.”
At the UU Society of Iowa City, interim minister the Rev. Benjamin Maucere used the worship service on Palm Sunday, April 5, to link the court decision with the liberation of the Israelites from slavery. “The story reminds us that the struggle for liberation continues and that we cannot rest until all are free,” he said.
In an interview later, he said, “As great as it is for Vermont to legalize gay marriage, the fact that it happened in Iowa, in the farm belt, in the middle of the country, provides a more persuasive argument that this is a mainstream issue.” Same-sex measures are advancing in New Hampshire, Maine, and New Jersey.
A fight lies ahead, Maucere noted. “We hear that calls to legislators are running two to one against this decision. It’s not over yet.”
The Rev. Keith Kron, the UUA’s director of the Office of Bisexual, Gay, Lesbian, and Transgender Concerns, noted that Unitarian Universalists have played major roles in advocating for marriage equality across the country. “Our leadership has made a significant difference in Vermont, Massachusetts, Connecticut, and Iowa. The significance of Vermont and Iowa legalizing same-sex marriage cannot be understated. Vermont's decision is significant because it says civil unions are not enough. Iowa's decision sends a real message to the rest of the nation as it is not a state from the liberal Northeast or West Coast.”
The approval of gay marriage in Vermont came nine years after that state was first in the nation to adopt a same-sex civil union law. The action this past week makes Vermont the first state to introduce gay marriage through legislative action instead of the courts.
Vermont’s House and Senate needed to pass the same-sex measure by two-thirds majorities to protect it from veto by Gov. Jim Douglas. The House fell short by five votes the first time it voted (95-52) and Douglas vetoed the measure. Then on Tuesday the House passed it 100 to 49. The measure passed easily in the Senate, 23-5 the same day.
Vermont Rep. Steve Maier, a member of Champlain Valley UU Society in Middlebury, said in an interview this week, “It was an honor for me to be able to cast a vote that is part of changing history and moving us more toward justice and equality. One of my colleagues said it more simply, ‘We did a good thing today.’”
Maier said credit should go to former House Speaker Gaye Symington, a Unitarian Universalist from Jericho where she is a member of the Mount Mansfield UU Fellowship. “She was central in restoring Democratic control of the House and growing that majority to where we had the votes this week.” Democrats lost their House legislative majority in Vermont in 2000, in the backlash over approval of civil unions, but regained it in 2004. Maier said he believes the same-sex marriage vote of this week will stand. “I just don’t think there is the same negative energy around trying to overturn this that there was in 2000.”
“I’m still in shock,” Jim Burnett, another member of the Champlain Valley congregation said a day after the vote. Burnett and his partner, Dan Breen, have been together 15 years.
“It’s just amazing,” said Burnett. “For all these years I’ve felt the weight of being treated differently and not understanding why people didn’t accept me for who I was. Yesterday I felt that as a society we are finally able to accept and even celebrate differences and move on to more important things.”
He said he and Dan will probably have a simple wedding after September 1. They had a civil union ceremony years ago. “Our friends and neighbors all feel so invested in this issue and in our struggle. We have to have a ceremony—and a backyard barbecue—for them.
He said his church, like most other UU congregations in Vermont, has worked for years toward the goal of marriage equality. “People have held meetings, stuffed envelopes, driven to rallies, given money, staffed a booth at the state fair, done sermons, brought in speakers, held worship services, testified, contacted legislators, written letters to the newspaper, and done phone banking.”
He credited Champlain Valley minister the Rev. Johanna Nichols with keeping the congregation inspired. “She kept reminding people this is the fight that’s happening now. This is the one we can do something about.”
Nichols has been involved in this issue since before civil unions were approved nine years ago, and before that for 10 years in Maine. “Listening to the people who came to public hearings this time, there was such a different tone from 2000,” Nichols said. “Most of the testimony from the opponents was very thoughtful and not necessarily homophobic. People spoke out of religious conviction and that has to be respected.”
She said many UUs worked with Vermont Freedom to Marry, the lead advocate group on marriage equality. What really made a difference, she said, was personal relationships. “This has been a person-to-person campaign,” she said. “We had the courage to talk with family, friends, neighbors, and co-workers about our religious values of freedom and dignity.”
She added, “I feel so gratified that something we value so much as Unitarian Universalists has come to this good place. This may be what it felt like for the women suffragists. It feels like democracy at its best.”
Summary of marriage equality:
States in which same-sex marriage is (or soon will be) legal: Massachusetts, Connecticut, Iowa, Vermont. California’s approval of same-sex marriage was reversed by voters in November.
Jurisdictions that recognize same-sex marriages from other states: Rhode Island, District of Columbia, New York
States allowing civil unions: Connecticut, Vermont, New Jersey, New Hampshire
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Donald E. Skinner was the founding editor of the InterConnections newsletter for congregational leaders and a senior editor of UU World from 1998 until his retirement in 2014. He is a member of the Shawnee Mission Unitarian Universalist Church in Lenexa, Kansas.