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Family Values: Law and Marriage in the 21st Century

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General Assembly 2003 Event 2028

Sponsor: Identity-Based Ministries, Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA)

Speakers: the Rev. Keith Kron, Hillary Goodridge, the Rev. Amy Tucker, Art Brewer, the Rev. Josh Pawelek, the Rev. Fred Small, Marshal Miller

What will marriage law change as the 21st century unfolds? Panelists explored the possibilities with stories of activism and commitment. The Rev. Keith Kron, director of the UUA Office of Bisexual, Gay, Lesbian, and Transgender Concerns, introduced each of the six speakers.

The Rev. Amy Tucker spoke of the work in Vermont by UU ministers and lay people in laying the groundwork for the Vermont Civil Union Law which went into effect in 2000. After three couples sued the state for the right to marry their same-sex partners, the Vermont Supreme Court found that the constitution supported their claim, and ordered legislation to support their right. Civil unions in Vermont grant all of the state’s rights to civil union partners that married couples gain by marriage. More than 100 ministers supported the law on the basis of their faith stance—not in spite of it—including Unitarian Universalist, Episcopal, Methodist and United Church of Christ clergy.

Hillary Goodridge, who is the Director of the UU Funding Program at the UUA, then spoke of her experiences leading to and as a lead plaintiff in the Massachusetts court case currently being decided in the Massachusetts Supreme Court, with a decision expected perhaps within the next month. She told of the year in her early 20s, which she called her “bridesmaid year,” when she had to ask herself why she was not entitled to the same privileges as her friends—and how she dealt with her feelings by trying to catch every bridal bouquet tossed at those weddings.

More seriously, she recalled that it is often only in times of “death, disability or disaster” that people realize the many rights and privileges automatically conferred with a marriage license. She described the efforts of herself and her partner to go through gaining some of those rights, documented in a stack of papers several inches thick, still not equaling those conferred with the single sheet of a marriage certificate. After an attempt to obtain a marriage license was denied to Goodridge and her partner, they filed a lawsuit in April of 2001. At the first hearing, the judge ruled against their claim, issuing an opinion that assumed that marriage is about procreation—though different-sex couples can be married well past the age when procreation is likely.

Third to speak was Art Brewer, from Ontario, a former board member of continental Interweave. As a volunteer, he works with the Canadian Unitarian Council on the Welcoming Congregation program. He held up the headlines in the Toronto Star and Canada’s Globe and Mail announcing the Canadian court decision accepting the legality of same sex marriages. He talked of the efforts of Egale in Canada, and read from that organization’s FAQ (frequently asked questions) to answer common questions such as the legality of such marriages in other provinces than Ontario, and whether states in the U.S. would recognize same-sex marriages performed legally in Ontario.

The Rev. Josh Pawelek of Norwich, Connecticut, spoke of his experiences as a clergy organizer for a Connecticut advocacy group, Love Makes a Family Coalition. He has worked to gain the support of individual clergy members for this coalition which is taking a legislative, rather than judicial, approach to acceptance of same-sex unions on an equal basis to marriage. So far, they’ve achieved some victories: domestic partner benefits for state employees and the ability of same-sex partners to adopt a child. They’ve also introduced both a civil union bill and a marriage bill that would extend all 588 Connecticut rights of married couples to any two consenting adults who choose to be married. Expected support for a recent bill dissolved, but the coalition intends to mount a door-to-door promotion campaign and try again for either of those legislative solutions.

The Rev. Fred Small, of First Church Unitarian in Littleton, MA, told of his own stance: he will no longer sign marriage licenses until same-sex marriages are legal in the state. While he was not the first UU minister to take such a stance, he was the first to put out a press release to that effect. He made clear that he continues to perform religious weddings and unions, but will not sign the state-issued license, thus becoming an agent of the state and a participant in injustice. When he announced his decision in church one Sunday, he received a standing ovation. Heterosexual allies of same-sex couples can make an enormous difference with stances such as this one, he concluded.

Marshal Miller described his work with the Alternatives to Marriage project. Co-author of the book Unmarried to Each Other, he does not oppose marriage (same or different sex) but promotes a diversity of approaches to relationships. The organization, with about 5,000 members, maintains a website and advocates for rights for unmarried couples. He noted several trends which will influence 21st century law on marriage:

  • the reality that marriage rates are declining
  • the marketplace mentality with different effects, including reducing marriage to a commodity and making it good business to provide benefits to "domestic partners”
  • the rhetoric of morality is being replaced by the rhetoric of social science, often with hidden agendas that influence “scientific” conclusions, and
  • the diversity of family trends that couldn’t be spoken of 50 years ago and at the same time the right-wing backlash and similar thinking in the current administration in Washington, DC. Miller recommended his organization’s brochure, “Let Them Eat Wedding Rings,” as a counter to current political proposals to use poverty funds to promote marriage.

After the session ended, many participants asked individual questions of the panelists.

Reported for the web by Jone Johnson Lewis.

For more information contact web @ uua.org.

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Last updated on Thursday, September 8, 2011.

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