UUs prominent in state battles for gay marriage

UUs prominent in state battles for gay marriage

Unitarian Universalists flex new political muscle lobbying for marriage equality.

Jane Greer, Tom Stites


Add New Hampshire to the long and growing list of states where organized Unitarian Universalists are taking action in support of marriage equality.

On February 7, just before Freedom to Marry Week rolled around to occasion a review of progress in an issue long supported by the Unitarian Universalist Association of Congregations, 12 UU clergy and lay people testified before the New Hampshire House Judiciary Committee against amending the state constitution to restrict marriage to a man and a woman. Last week, the committee voted 14 to 7 to recommend against the amendment’s passage.

“The proposed constitutional amendment would make New Hampshire a state that goes on record as permanently oppressing a specific group of human beings,” the Rev. Emily Burr, minister of Kearsarge Unitarian Universalist Fellowship in Andover, said in her testimony before the judiciary committee. “Constitutions should be documents that protect civil rights, not eliminate them.”

The bill goes next to the New Hampshire House, and if it passes it will go to the state Senate. If both bodies approve it, it will go before New Hampshire voters in fall 2006, says Pam Kelly, coordinator of New Hampshire Faithful Democracy.

UU testimony was coordinated by New Hampshire Faithful Democracy, a group organized by UUs 18 months ago to train UUs and other liberal religious groups and individuals in legislative advocacy and to promote the building of social justice capacity in congregations. New Hampshire Faithful Democracy is one of ten UU state legislative ministries that have sprung up or are in the process of forming since the successful founding of the UU Legislative Ministry of California in 2004.

Marriage equality remains an epic struggle. With support from religious conservatives, 19 states have already passed so-called defense of marriage amendments and ten others, including New Hampshire, are considering them. Meanwhile, lawsuits similar to the one that legalized same-sex marriage in Massachusetts are working their war through the courts in several states, and advocates are supporting bills to legalize marriage equality in state legislatures. UUs have been providing public witness in support of marriage equality in many states but have been especially active in Connecticut, Florida, Georgia, Maryland, Massachusetts, New York, and Oregon.

The next dramatic development in this struggle is expected in Washington State, where supporters have for months been eagerly awaiting the results of a state supreme court ruling that could overturn a law against same-sex marriage. The Rev. Kit Ketcham, minister of the Vashon Island Unitarian Fellowship and the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Whidbey Island, is a leader of UU marriage equality advocacy and is a member of the steering committee of Washington’s Religious Coalition for Equality. The group was instrumental in supporting a bill protecting sexual minorities against discrimination in housing, credit, employment, and insurance that the state legislature recently enacted.

The situation in other states where UUs are deeply engaged:

California—The UU Legislative Ministry of California and California Faith for Equality organized the filing of a “friend of the court” brief in January in the First District Court of Appeal in support of marriage equality. In March 2005 a San Francisco superior Court judge ruled in favor of same-sex marriage and the state of California appealed. The brief, signed by 200 religious organizations and leaders, urged an appeal of the state’s decision.

Maryland—Advocates for marriage equality were cheered by a January 20 Baltimore circuit court ruling that denying the rights of same-sex couples to marry is a violation of the state’s equal rights amendment, which protects against sex-based discrimination. The decision has been stayed to give the state the opportunity to appeal. Says Meredith Curtis of ACLU Maryland, which represented nine same-sex couples and a bereaved man in the initial lawsuit against the Baltimore city clerk for refusing to issue the couples marriage licenses, “Ultimately [the case] will go before the Court of Appeals and they will rule on the constitutionality of barring same sex couples from civil marriage.”

Charles Blackburn, a retired UU minister who is a member and past board president of the first Unitarian Church in Baltimore, and his partner Glen Dehn were among the original group suing the Baltimore city clerk.

Virginia—Developments have not been so positive. The Virginia State Senate approved a proposed constitutional amendment in January that not only would prevent same-sex marriage but also civil unions and other domestic partnerships. The matter will go before Virginia voters in November.

In protest, sixty gay and straight couples took part in a January public commitment ceremony at the Unitarian Universalist Church in Arlington, Virginia. The ceremony attracted significant media attention. The Washington Post quoted the Rev. Richard Nugent, who presided over the ceremony, as saying, “To put it bluntly, this amendment is mean-spirited, arises out of political expediency, and fuels ungrounded fear and bigotry.”

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Correction 2.21.06: An earlier version of this story mentioned only one of the two congregations served by Ketcham.