Little by little, the wedding calendars for United Church of Christ pastors and congregations in Illinois are filling in with ceremonies for same-sex weddings now that the state's new marriage law has taken effect. The June 1 weekend was the first time that same-sex couples could legally marry in Illinois, and advocates for LGBT rights recognize the law as the latest moment in the continuous movement for LGBT equality.
The Rev. Rex Piercy, pastor at Congregational UCC of Arlington Heights, has a pair of weddings scheduled for later this month on consecutive weekends – one for a couple in his church on June 21, and another for a couple that isn't part of his congregation on June 28.
"The second couple just called sort of out of the blue. That's a little bit of a change for me. I have generally in my career in the church not done weddings without a connection to my church," Piercy said.
"But I am doing this because I'm openly-gay myself, and because this is becoming legal in Illinois, I feel like there are folks who are out there and up to this point have been denied this right. Now that it's legal I feel a passion, if you will, for couples who want to make their relationships fully legal."
Illinois lawmakers passed legislation on Nov. 5, 2013, to give same-gender couples the freedom to marry with the same rights as other couples in the state. Gov. Pat Quinn signed the bill into law later that month, and it took effect on Sunday.
"The couple in my congregation, they had a holy union 10 to 15 years ago," Piercy said. "Then Illinois adopted civil unions a few years ago (in 2011), so Andrea and Betsy had that ceremony after a worship service. And now, on June 21, they're going to have another little ceremony and invite friends to make their marriage legal."
"How many straight couples do you know that would go through all those steps to have their relationship recognized?" Piercy said. "I commend them for that, and say shame on society for having made that burden on them as something they had to deal with."
While June 1 was the official date that same-sex couples could begin marrying, some were allowed to marry in Cook County before then, when a judge ruled they shouldn't have to wait once the law was signed.
Congregational UCC took a moment to mark the occasion, but they and other faith communities will be active throughout the month of June in support of LGBT rights.
"My congregation shares joys and concerns for prayer verbally," Piercy said. "Our ONA coordinator spoke on Sunday (June 1) and shared the joy we all have that marriage equality is law in the 'Land of Lincoln.'"
"On June 12, we participate in a Pride interfaith worship with six other congregations," Piercy said, adding that Evangelical Lutheran, Unitarian Universalist and other UCC congregations take part in the service. "We are part of the Chicago Coalition of Welcoming Churches, a voluntary organization of welcoming congregations, so we are also carrying our banner in the Chicago Pride Parade on June 29."
Christine Foley, a member at Glenview Community Church in Glenview, Ill., plans to be part of that parade as a visible supporter of marriage equality and the LGBT community after the congregation became Open and Affirming in 2010.
"The acceptance of gay marriage is quickly turning around. It was important for our church to do so because the General Synod voted to be Open and Affirming," Foley said. "We want to be more visibly active, which is why we're marching this year in Chicago's Gay Pride Parade."
Piercy added, "It's fairly impressive to see several hundred people carrying church banners as a contingent in a parade. We've done this for quite a number of years."
When Illinois passed its same-sex marriage law in the fall, it became the 15th state to do so. In the six months since, four more states now permit couples to marry regardless of gender – mostly through legal actions brought against the state – bringing the total number to 19 states and the District of Columbia.
A groundswell of federal and state lawsuits could inflate that number as judges in 10 states (Idaho, Oklahoma, Virginia, Michigan, Texas, Utah, Arkansas, Kentucky, Ohio and Tennessee) ruled that either all or part of those states' same-sex marriage bans were unconstitutional. There is only one state, Montana, without a legal challenge to a state ban on marriage equality.
"[Marriage equality in Illinois] is a place on the journey," Piercy said, "but it's not the end of the journey."