Unitarian Universalists mobilize against state ballot initiatives

Unitarian Universalists mobilize against state ballot initiatives

Ballot initiatives in Arizona, Florida, and Arkansas aim to limit rights of same-sex couples to marry, adopt.


Marriage equality advocates are scrambling to fight ballot initiatives in several states that could limit the rights of same-sex couples.

Although California’s Proposition 8, which would reverse a court decision made in May 2008 allowing gay marriage, has grabbed national headlines, voters in Florida, Arizona, and Arkansas will also face questions affecting the civil rights of same-sex couples and their families. The Florida and Arizona measures would ban same-sex marriage. The ballot initiative in Arkansas seeks to prevent same-sex couples from adopting or becoming foster parents.

In all three states, Unitarian Universalists have been working actively to counter the ballot initiatives. As Election Day nears on November 4, UUs have been attending rallies, making phone calls, and writing letters to get out the vote for GLBT rights.

“It’s very clear how this amendment is pure and simple hatred and prejudice,” said the Rev. Abhi P. Janamanchi, minister of UUs of Clearwater, Fla. Florida’s Amendment 2, called the “Florida Marriage Protection Amendment,” states: “Inasmuch as marriage is the legal union of only one man and one woman as husband and wife, no other legal union that is treated as marriage or the substantial equivalent thereof shall be valid or recognized.”

Florida law already limits marriages to unions between one man and one woman. This initiative goes further, and would ban all recognition and benefits for unmarried couples, both straight and gay. In doing so, the initiative would block civil unions and domestic partnership and eliminate existing protections. Among the ballot’s many far-reaching potential effects would be to curtail rights of elderly heterosexual couples in domestic partnerships, including the right to visit each other in the hospital.

“There has been significant UU leadership in opposing the initiative,” said the Rev. Manish K. Mishra, minister of the UU Church of St. Petersburg. Beth Fountain, a member of the St. Petersburg church is the Tampa Bay field organizer for Fairness for All Families. UUs have also spearheaded a group called Florida Clergy for Fairness, a group of more than 200 religious leaders seeking to defeat the amendment.

Members of the Clearwater church have been conducting phone banks and spreading awareness of the initiative’s potential effects. On October 26, UUs of Clearwater, along with other Tampa Bay area UU and other churches, organized an interfaith rally in Tampa’s Lowry Park. The event, “Standing on the Side of Love,” attracted more than 300 people, and featured area politicians, clergy, and musicians. To help fund permits and advertising for the rally, the UUA Freedom to Marry Fund awarded the organizers a $2,000 grant, and the Florida District provided $500.

Mishra, of the St. Petersburg church, helped organize the event, which took place outside the gates of the city’s zoo. He was pleased with the location, because it helped get the group’s message out to families attending the zoo on a Sunday. “The zoo is something people do together as a family, and we’re standing up for the rights to have families of all different kinds,” said Mishra. “That’s what bothers me the most. You have a narrow group of special interest who want to decide what my family will look like.” Mishra plans to marry his partner, Jeff Marzetti, in June.

On Sunday, October 19, before the rally, Mishra, Janamanchi, and more than 100 liberal clergy statewide preached against the amendment. They chose October 19 to take a public stand in their churches because it was the same day that conservative religious leaders were speaking from their pulpits in support of Amendment 2. From the pulpit, Janamanchi stressed that the amendment eviscerates existing benefits and privileges for families in the midst of a serious economic crisis. He was joined at the pulpit by two couples from the congregation. One was a lesbian couple that spoke about their difficulty explaining to their daughter that they have second-class citizenship status in the eyes of the state. The other was an elderly heterosexual couple that has chosen not to marry, so as not to jeopardize their children’s and grandchildren’s inheritance. The couple is now concerned that their agreement to be each other’s health surrogates would be in question if the amendment passes. “It could affect critical life decisions being made by either one of them for the other,” Janamanchi said.

In Arizona, Proposition 102 would amend the state constitution to recognize marriage as only between one man and one woman. The state already has a law that prohibits same-sex marriage. If passed, the ballot initiative would prevent a court ruling from allowing same-sex marriage.

Liberal clergy in the state agreed to focus opposition to the bill around political, rather than religious, reasoning, according to the Rev. Susan Manker-Seale, minister of the UU Congregation of Northwest Tucson. “We have been focusing on three messages: that the legislature should not be telling people how to live their lives; that there are more important issues that the legislature should focus on, such as education and immigration; and that we don’t need this kind of language in our constitution.”

Manker-Seale spoke at an interfaith service opposing the amendment on October 23 and was able to add a more religious tone to her message. She spoke about the Unitarian Universalist belief in spreading the message of love. “It is so clearly a social justice issue and a civil rights issue,” Manker-Seale said.

The board of the Pacific Southwest District voted in July to oppose both Arizona’s Proposition 102 and California’s Proposition 8. District Executive the Rev. Dr. Ken Brown has been supporting UU efforts in both states to fight the initiatives.

Brown finds he is fighting an uphill battle in Arizona. A lot of money and effort from Arizona is going to California to fight Proposition 8 there. “People see California as a trendsetter, and many believe that measure may be more vital,” said Brown.

Even though Arizona defeated a Defense of Marriage ballot initiative two years ago, this one is leading in the polls. The language of the 2006 measure was broader and more similar to this year’s Florida initiative, galvanizing senior citizens who might have been affected. The more specific language of Proposition 102, allowing only for marriage between one man and one woman, seems to be garnering more support.

Brown recognizes that many liberal clergy were hoping that their message could have been more religious. He says that given the libertarian leanings of the Arizona electorate, however, a political message is appropriate. “We defeated the last measure linking the progressive community with libertarians,” Brown said. “The stance has really been that we’ve already voted this down once, and why should we let the government tell us what to do on a personal matter.”

Activists in Arkansas are battling an “Unmarried Couple Adoption Ban” that would make it illegal for any unmarried couple living together in the state to adopt or serve as foster parents. Arkansas law and the state constitution both ban recognition of marriages between same-sex couples.

The UU Church of Little Rock has been a center of opposition to the proposal. A rally is being planned for Saturday night, November 1 to keep people energized right up to Election Day. “Our purpose is to ask people who are opposing the measure to see what else they can do,” said Paula Gribble, coordinator of lay ministry at the Little Rock church, and an organizer of the event. “We want to know: Have you asked all your friends to vote? Have you volunteered at a polling place?”

The church has been mustering its opposition to the initiative since November 2007, when it held a special congregational meeting and unanimously opposed the ban. The resolution read: “Be it resolved that the congregation of the Unitarian Universalist Church of Little Rock opposes any ballot initiative to restrict the right of unmarried couples to adopt children or serve as foster parents to minor children. By allowing a narrow definition of ‘family’ to guide decisions on adoption and foster-parent decision making, children will be denied loving homes, and unmarried couples, both straight and gay, will be denied the opportunity to provide those homes for children who need them.”

The Rev. Robert J. Klein notes that being part of a liberal religious institution in the Bible Belt is important for many gay members, some of whom are only “out” within the walls of the UU church, but not at work or in their communities.

Klein has been a vocal opponent of the measure, speaking at an October 2 public hearing at the Arkansas Department of Human Services. He testified that, “We need to look at the needs of children and the goodness of families on a case-by-case basis and really focus on what children need rather than answering the moral priorities of the religious right.”

Like his colleagues in Florida and Arizona, Klein has banded together with other liberal religious leaders opposing initiatives restricting the rights of same-sex couples. Klein joined a group of Baptist, Methodist, Presbyterian, Episcopalian, Jewish, and Disciples of Christ clergy in a statement opposing the Arkansas ban. In part, the statement read: “We are called by our faith teachings to protect children. Act 1 puts our children at risk. We encourage all Arkansans to vote NO on Act 1.”

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