Working to tip the scales toward justice and love, leaders from the United Church of Christ joined thousands of people who massed outside the Supreme Court Tuesday morning as the justices readied to hear two cases on marriage equality. The Rev. J. Bennett Guess, executive minister of the UCC's Local Church Ministries, the Rev. Michael Schuenemeyer, the UCC executive for LGBT concerns, and Bishop Yvette Flunder, founder and pastor of the City of Refuge in San Francisco, took part in a historic show of support — first at an interfaith service, and later in a emotional rally in front of the court in Washington, D.C., sharing messages of equality and love for all Americans.
"The interfaith service brought together an energized, capacity crowd representing dozens of faith traditions," Guess said of the morning service. "It was clear that there was palpable optimism in the congregation and, later, outside the Supreme Court itself. There is a real clear sense that the time has arrived for marriage equality."
Guess preached early Tuesday in a sunrise service, 'A Prayer for Love and Justice' alongside a half-dozen other faith leaders from 15 different denominations at the Lutheran Church of the Reformation, just a few blocks away from the Supreme Court.
In his remarks, Guess spoke of how love "removes every obstacle. Love appeals to the highest court in the land, when necessary… When I was a scared, uncertain, disempowered gay person, I thought and reasoned like a scared, uncertain, disempowered gay person. I thought this day could never come," he said. "But now, I've put all that behind me, every limiting thought."
At the conclusion of the morning of prayer, the crowd filed out and marched together to the United for Marriage Rally on the grounds of the Supreme Court, where thousands of people gathered to voice their stance on the issue.
Flunder, a UCC ordained minister, told the crowd that "equality is the right of all, not the privilege of some."
"Therefore, I stand this morning, to proclaim liberty throughout all the land that the hour has come to recognize the love of gay and lesbian couples whose commitment deserves the same legal protections granted all married citizens under the law," Flunder said. "I declare to you this morning, before God Almighty, in the spirit of truth and with bold humility, that the time has come for full equality, full liberty, full inclusion, where all citizens of these United States are treated equally under the law."
"We are living in an incredible time with an amazing opportunity to shape history," Schuenemeyer said. "This is our time to shine, our time to share our stories, our time to make our voices heard, and to step up the pace of realizing equality and justice for everyone."
The Supreme Court is hearing arguments on two marriage equality cases in back-to-back days. Deliberation ended Tuesday morning for Hollingsworth vs. Perry, a case on the constitutionality of California's Proposition 8, enacted in 2008, that ended marriage equality in that state. The Court will hear arguments on Wednesday in Windsor vs. United States, which challenges the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) from 1996 that denies federal benefits to same-sex couples. After deliberations, the nine justices will likely announce their decision in late June.
The UCC's history of LGBT advocacy traces back decades, as it was the first denomination to ordain an openly gay minister in 1972, and the first to affirm marriage equality for all couples in 2005.
"Everywhere I went today, people came up to me to express deep, sincere gratitude for the United Church of Christ," Guess said. "We may not be the largest church, but we are an impactful one. Our values, and the ways we live them out in the public realm, are changing lives. I hope others can feel and share that pride. I sure felt it today."
Among the UCC faithful who came to the nation's capital to publicly demonstrate their pride were Pat Straw and Liza Hearns, members of Hope UCC and residents of Alexandria, Va. They have been together for 21 years, and have been legally married for three years after receiving a license in D.C.
"We're here in solidarity and support, and to experience this day in what we hope will be a mark in history for equality," Straw said.
Added Hearns, "It was moving… A wonderful interfaith service with prayers, music and even some dancing in the aisles. There was a particular moment [during the service] of the blessing the couples that I felt moved. And there were some wonderful words from a Baptist minister, and Pat grew up Baptist but didn't always feel included."
"For Pat and I, the only place we felt we could be an authentic couple was in our UCC congregation, and that is a testament to our congregation and the UCC," Hearns added.
The Rev. C. Welton Gaddy, President of Interfaith Alliance, told the crowd of LGBT supporters during the rally that "Marriage is a civil issue in this nation, and as such should be available to all people in this nation," he said. "It is a matter of the Constitutional guarantee of civil rights for everybody."
As the case for marriage equality is being debated across the country, the latest Washington Post-ABC News poll shows a majority of Americans now believe it should be legal for LGBT couples to marry. Fifty-eight percent of those polled support the issue, with 36 percent saying same sex marriage should be illegal. Right now marriage equality bills are moving through at least two state legislatures in Illinois and Rhode Island, with nine states, along with Washington, D.C., that recognize same-sex marriage: Connecticut, Iowa, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New York, Vermont, and Washington.