General Assembly: GA Presentations: Presenter views and opinions do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the UUA.

Marriage Equality: Standing on the Side of Love

General Assembly 2005 Event 2003

Presenters: Rob Keithan, Director of the Washington Office for Advocacy, Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA); Kierstin Homblette, Legislative Assistant for Women's Issues at the Washington Office for Advocacy, UUA; Rev. Lindi Ramsden, Director of UU Legislative Ministry in California ; Rev. Keith Kron, Director of Office of GBLT Concerns, UUA; Tracy Hollister, UU Fellowship of Raleigh, NC  (Equal Hearts )

Rob Keithan, Directory of the UUA's Washington Office for Advocacy, said that the main strategy in its fight for marriage equality was to keep the focus on the human face of legislation, to truly educate the public. The three main tenets which we believe in, he stated, are that Unitarian Universalists stand on the side of love, that all families deserve the legal benefits of marriage, and that marriage is a civil right. The UUA has done so much in Massachusetts that it's looking for a way to support congregations in other parts of the country, especially where action is already going on.

Kierstin Homblette, Legislative Assistant for Women's Issues at the Washington Office for Advocacy, said that we must deal with the Federal Marriage Amendment. It was first introduced in 2003 but failed in both the House and Senate. The issue may come up again in 2006, an election year, but not this year. The amendment would require every state to prohibit same-sex marriage and would prohibit states from making their own laws. The UUA obviously is against this, and has many coalition partners with other national organizations.

Homblette suggested a number of talking points when discussing marriage equality. Unitarian Universalism has been working for years on behalf of GBLT couples, and can speak from the basis of personal stories; personal stories are always the most effective and compelling. Let the public know how the proposed amendment would affect you, your family, your friends, your congregation, and your community, she said.

Rev. Lindi Ramsden, Director of UU Legislative Ministry in California, reported that California is both blessed and cursed to be the land of ballot initiatives. The GLBT community was successful in stopping discriminatory initiatives in the 80s (they tried to pass one saying that gays can't be teachers, for example). One current ballot initiative would keep marriage "between a man and a woman." A strong community organized in opposition.

There is a possible battle to take away civil benefits, perhaps in legislative process as well as initiatives. The UU Legislative Ministry has urged Gov. Schwarzenegger not to take a position prematurely, and distributed "Terminate Homophobia" postcards. Marriage Equality caravans toured California in October 2004.

Many UUs were shell-shocked after the November election, reported Ramsden. Don't assume that all UUs "get it" in terms of the marriage issue. They may be "in favor of it" but don't really understand it at a gut level. Make sure they understand the marriage issue is a civil benefits issue. She recommended that clergy start pastoral care in their congregations around the issue.

Rev. Keith Kron, Director of Office of GBLT Concerns at the UUA, asked, "Does Marriage Equality work in your congregation? Yes!"

People may be for marriage equality, reported Kron, but may not be aware of the issues until it impacts the people they know, which is why the telling of stories makes more of a difference than anything else. The reality is that what we see in the media is not where most people in the USA are; People are not wild about non-traditional marriage but they're not in favor of discrimination, either; most people really don't want to think about it unless they have to. These are people that are reachable and educable.

It is very important for our congregations to work with other congregations and other liberal denominations, suggested Kron. In Vermont, the fact that there was an interfaith group made a significant difference; there was religion on both sides of the issue; made a big difference to people in the middle.

Kron recommended that activists get to know the organizations and people who are a part of your community; many congregations do not do this; it is important for organizations to know that they can call on you. People need to hear how peoples' lives would be made more difficult if these amendments were to pass. Try to assemble a group of people (at least four) in your congregation to get something done; it can't be just one person.

Kron also noted that the UUA has a President's Freedom to Marry fund; it has given out $85,000 for congregations to do various witness-public events.

Tracy Hollister, at the UU Fellowship of Raleigh, NC, wanted to make a public statement about marriage equality after her congregation voted in favor of it in December. A program called "Write your heart out" was very effective. Their Equal Hearts website says, "At the center of the project are colorful foam hearts where people use their own words to complete the sentence 'I support marriage quality because...' Their answers are many and varied... The finished hearts are joined together and displayed publicly as inspirational tapestries. These Equal Hearts tapestries, already representing many faiths, are uniting diverse religious communities and allow people of all faiths to 'stand together on the side of love.'"

Questions and Answers

The speakers then took questions from the attendees. The first question was, "What is the difference between marriage and civil union?" Ramsden noted that in California there are 1,053 rights that apply automatically to marriages but not to civil unions—rights like social security and pensions. For example, the surviving spouse of a 50 year-old civil union has none of these rights. Conversely, in the case of a man who has been married five times for ten years each, each of those five spouses could get rights. There are many sad stories of people who have been together for years, having no rights when one of the partners dies.

Kron has observed a difference in how people are treated in Vermont (which has civil unions) and Massachusetts (who has same-sex marriage). "People in Massachusetts 'get it' when you say 'marriage,'" said Kron. "When people talk about 'civil union,' they have no experience with it."

The next question was, "What is the difference in legislative goals between fighting for domestic partnership and fighting for marriage?" Keithan said, "This is a typical Washington tactical question: Do we go for what's doable in the short run or for the whole thing, which may not be doable in the short term? The answer is to do both, to educate for the whole thing (marriage equality). If we don't fight for marriage equality in the long term, then no one will be doing it."

Another question was, "What really does 'protect' marriage?" The speakers suggested that lack of affordable child care, health care, and good jobs are the reasons why marriages break up, not the gender of the people involved.

Barbara Ford, from the First Unitarian Church in Portland, OR, reported that they have a very visible presence in Portland, with a banner outside their church. "Going public" is one of the most important things you can do as a church, she said. For those who are working on this issue, support from within a congregation is vital.

An attendee asked, "How can straight people be convinced that this is a good idea to support?" Keithan responded, "When a huge oppressed segment of humanity gets something they deserve, I feel good about myself and feel like I'm doing God's work." Speakers pointed out that straight families have gay children who need to be educated that they can grow up and marry the person they love, and still be free to be who they are. Love is easier to explain than hypocrisy. We all have an investment in having families and communities be stable and strong; it takes away from our community if we see values that are held up but not being implemented.

A social justice coordinator from the Washington, DC, area spoke on tactics for getting people out for rallies, suggesting that personal contact works best; getting ministers involved is extremely helpful; and that taking a position as a church makes a difference (even though people may be divided within a church). Though there are many UUs involved in this issue, we need many denominations involved for legislators to pay attention.

Rev. Sarah Stewart, UU minister in Plymouth, NH, reported that some ministers (including herself) refuse to sign marriage licenses unless there is marriage equality in the state, and asked whether this is an effective tool. Kron responded that it helps to educate people in the middle, and it gives a lot of hope for those who are fighting the battle.

Reported for by Allan Stern; edited by Margy Levine Young.