Written by Connie Larkman
True to his word, a federal judge in Ohio leveled the playing field for wedded people in the state, ordering Ohio authorities to recognize the marriages of same-sex couples performed in other states. The ruling, being celebrated by gay rights supporters, has special significance to several employees at the UCC national offices in Cleveland and their spouses.
In his ruling on Monday, April 14, U.S. District Court Judge Timothy Black criticized the state's "ongoing arbitrary discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation," calling Ohio's gay marriage ban both unconstitutional and unenforceable.
That sentiment is echoed at the UCC national headquarters in Cleveland, where justice, love and equality for all are the building blocks of 700 Prospect. "Equality is a fundamental American value and marriage equality – the right to marry the person you love – should be no exception," said the Rev. Michael Schuenemeyer, UCC executive for health and wholeness advocacy. "The UCC has long history of working for equality and justice for everyone, grounded in the worth and dignity of every person as a child of God."
But Schuenemeyer, who legally wed his spouse in California in 2008, also emphasized the personal impact of the judge's ruling. "It is more than political; it is also personal for me and my partner of 11 years, Rowen. We were happy to be able to file our federal taxes as a married couple for the first time, but then had to wade through the complications of filing our Ohio state taxes separately."
Darrell Ludwig, the UCC profile and ministry opportunities administrator, married his partner, Phillip, in New York after more than two decades together. The couple just celebrated their first anniversary, and Ludwig -- who said he waited until the last minute to file Ohio taxes, hoping they could do so jointly -- "applauds this just decision which helps overcome sanctioned discrimination in all its many forms."
Kimberly Whitney, executive associate to the UCC national officers, and her spouse, the Rev. Elizabeth Leung, the UCC minister for racial justice, waited more than a decade so they could legally wed in 2011. "Once it was possible, we chose Niagara Falls to celebrate that love, a place that, like God, has no borders. It is an extraordinary moment for Elizabeth and me to think our covenant might be recognized even more broadly now in our own state. It is so huge and deeply affirming, in some ways, that it isn't possible to share the depth of what this means as citizens of a world that might want us as 'us.'"
Though Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine said that he will appeal the judge's ruling because a majority of Ohio voters voted to ban gay marriage in 2004, the Rev. J. Bennett Guess sees it as another triumph on the path toward equality for LGBT couples.
"This is clearly a great moment for all the people of Ohio who believe in fairness and for the thousands of same-gender-loving couples, including my partner, Jim, and I, who have been waiting a long time for our legal marriage in another state to be recognized in the state where we live," said Guess, executive minister of the UCC's Local Church Ministries. Guess and his spouse, together for more than a decade, married in Massachusetts in 2007 when it first became legal there for out-of-staters to do so.
The Rev. Phil Hart, conference minister for the Ohio Conference of the UCC, also celebrates the judge's decision. "I join in the celebration and continue to hope and pray for that day when love will be seen as love and all families will be given the respect and honor they deserve. God is still speaking -- thanks be to God!"
Gay marriage is legal in 17 states and Washington, D.C. Federal judges recently have struck down gay marriage bans in Michigan, Oklahoma, Texas, Utah and Virginia, though stays have been issued pending appeals. One of those appeals is likely to make it to the Supreme Court, which is expected to rule on whether states can ban same-sex marriages or whether gay marriage must be equal nationwide. The United Church of Christ first affirmed marriage equality at General Synod in 2005.