Unitarian Universalists work to preserve gay marriage in Calif.

Unitarian Universalists work to preserve gay marriage in Calif.

UU Legislative Ministry opposes California’s Proposition 8 as an attack on marriage equality.


With Election Day drawing near and conservative religious groups investing more than $25 million in efforts to end same-sex marriage in California, Unitarian Universalists throughout the state are mobilizing to fight back on behalf of marriage equality.

At phone banks, vigils, and rallies, UUs are urging Californians to vote “No” on Proposition 8. If the “Yes” vote prevails, the measure would amend the state constitution to eliminate the right of same-sex couples to marry in California, reversing a state Supreme Court decision in May, and would provide that only marriage between a man and a woman is recognized in California.

“It’s important that the No message comes through religious institutions,” said Stephanie Stolte, a member of the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Stanislaus County in Modesto, who is helping to organize an interfaith effort to defeat Proposition 8 in California’s conservative Central Valley. “It’s about fundamental freedom and whether or not our state constitution is able to function to protect minority rights. That is just a plain old American value about equal treatment under the law.”

Stolte is working with the Unitarian Universalist Legislative Ministry (UULM), which formed the UULM Action Network Political Action Committee (PAC) to allow it to raise money to support legislation and ballot measures consistent with Unitarian Universalist values and to oppose measures that are not. The Rev. Lindi Ramsden is executive director of the Sacramento-based PAC. “We’re working specifically in faith communities,” she said. “Unitarian Universalists have helped to open doors to engage people of faith from UU and other backgrounds.”

A cornerstone of the campaign has been phone banking to reach out to undecided voters. The Unitarian Universalist Congregation, Santa Rosa, has been hosting phone banks three days a week. On October 16, it hosted its first clergy phone bank, part of a statewide interfaith effort to involve clergy who oppose the ballot measure in reaching out to voters. Deborah Mason, the congregation’s director of religious education, has been volunteering for the “No on 8” effort since the ballot measure was certified in June.

“We’ve had good luck in terms of identifying a lot of people who are voting No,” said Mason. She has found that many people who support same-sex marriage did not understand that they should vote No on the proposition. “The language is tricky. People say, ‘I support gay marriage so I’m voting Yes.’ The phone calls are really good education.”

In the Santa Rosa phone banks, Mason finds that No voters typically outweigh Yes voters. However, polls indicate that may not be the case statewide. Although the No vote was leading in polls in late September, the Yes appeared to have gained the edge by mid-October. Many attribute the surge in Yes votes to a television advertising blitz by Yes supporters. The ads proclaim that if the state constitution is not amended to abolish same-sex marriage, clergy will be required to marry same-gender couples or risk losing their church’s tax-exempt status. The ads also claim that gay marriage will be taught to school children.

“It’s hard to see that kind of misinformation being put out,” said Ramsden, noting that opponents of equal marriage seeking a Yes vote have raised about $10 million more than No supporters.

At the same time, Ramsden has been heartened by the UU and interfaith response. The UULM Action Network PAC has active contact with at least 55 UU congregations in California. And she says that action around the issue has been a “clarifying opportunity for congregations that they can’t just stand on the sidelines.”

Initially, Ramsden had sensed confusion among individuals and congregations about whether faith communities could participate in opposition of a ballot measure without losing their tax-exempt status. “This is non-partisan moral witness,” Ramsden says.

For the First Unitarian Universalist Society of San Francisco (FUUS), the Supreme Court ruling marked the beginning of another chapter of the church’s support for marriage equality.

On the day that gay marriages became legal statewide, the church packed up a van of supplies and set up a “Wedding on Wheels” tent outside San Francisco City Hall. Members were there to show support for same-sex marriage, and ministers were ready and waiting to perform weddings for people with newly issued marriage licenses. They had a pulpit, an Oriental rug, flowers, and wedding cake.

“Ours wasn’t a protest, it was an invitation,” said the Rev. Gregory Stewart, senior minister at FUUS. More than 100 church members volunteered at the tent, primarily answering questions from passersby about why a church was there. “We shared the good news of Unitarian Universalism with people,” Stewart said.

Since June, the congregation has been hosting phone banks. And it is preparing for a banner celebration and a two-day vigil leading up to Election Day, Nov. 4.

The centerpiece of the celebration will be the marriage between the minister and his partner, Stillman Stewart, at the Sunday service on Nov. 2. (The couple has five children, ages 8 to 15.) “We expect a full house,” says Gregory Stewart. “We’re putting up front what we all know to be true, and that is that in love, there is no judgment. We’re putting forward that as a couple we believe that; as a community of faith we live that; and as a movement we embrace that.” The congregation has invited the media to attend.

For the following two days, the church will be open until the polls close. Many churches are anticipating a rush of same-sex weddings prior to Election Day by couples hoping to get in under the wire in case Proposition 8 passes. FUUS will be offering marriages and a gathering place as the ballots are counted.

Not long after proponents of the ballot initiative gained the necessary number of signatures in June, the Mount Diablo Unitarian Universalist Church in Walnut Creek took a vote to affirm congregation-wide support for marriage equality and to oppose the proposition. The resolution said:

We the congregation of the Mt. Diablo Unitarian Universalist Church support equal civil marriage rights for all couples. We are a welcoming congregation and oppose discrimination against lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people and their children. Our congregation has been blessing services of union for same-sex couples since the mid-1980s. By this resolution, we authorize committees and individuals of this congregation to represent us in public witness and action through coalitions, public education and legislative action—for equal civil rights and freedoms for all couples to marry, without regard to gender.

Since the resolution passed 107 to 1, member Melissa Allen has been coordinating outreach, including twice-weekly phone banks.

After the vote, the church welcomed its new co-ministers, the Rev. Leslie Takahashi Morris and the Rev. David Takahashi Morris. They had previously been co-ministers at the Thomas Jefferson Memorial Church Unitarian Universalist in Charlottesville, Va., when Virginia voters amended their state constitution to disallow same-sex marriage. “David and I have had the unfortunate experience of knowing what happens when these things pass,” said Leslie Takahashi Morris. “Part of our passion around this is that we had to minister to those whose lives were affected. It’s very difficult for people, and it takes a huge emotional toll.”

Leading up to Election Day, Takahashi Morris said she believes it’s very important that the voice of liberal religious institutions is heard. “The entire argument is being cast in religious language,” she said. “So if our voice isn’t at the table, it’s a one-sided conversation about religion.”

In the San Francisco Bay area, Betty Jeanne Rueters-Ward is working as an interfaith organizer to pull supporters together from many faiths—not just Unitarian Universalism and not just liberal religious traditions. Working with the UULM, she has signed up “No on 8” supporters who are members and clergy of Catholic, Baptist, Episcopal, Jewish, Lutheran, Methodist, United Church of Christ, Metropolitan Church of Christ, and evangelical institutions.

“UUs have been involved in marriage equality for years, so it poses a special responsibility for us to support other faith communities,” said Rueters-Ward. “It can be risky for an Episcopalian or a Catholic clergy person. I feel a sense of privilege as a UU getting to support other denominations on the issue.”

This past spring, Rueters-Ward graduated from the Starr King School for the Ministry in Berkeley with a Master of Arts in religious leadership for social change. She is quickly putting that academic training into practice. In addition to coordinating local phone banking, Rueters-Ward is also beginning to work with out-of-state volunteers interested in phone-banking from their homes.

“There is so much passion for this issue and for making sure rights aren’t eliminated,” said Rueters-Ward. “People are hungry to get the progressive religious voice out there.”

Related Resources

From the Archives