As of December 18, this year had already marked a monumental swing in the quest for marriage equality in the United States, with victories in courthouses and statehouses of seven states. But in a two-day span, two more states, New Mexico and Utah, became the latest to adopt marriage equality, albeit in surprising fashion. This Advent session brought a welcome gift for advocates of LGBT rights in the United Church of Christ.
The New Mexico Supreme Court ruled on Dec. 19 that the state cannot infringe on the freedom to marry for all couples. A day later, a federal judge in Utah issued a similar and unexpected ruling to overturn a state ban on same-sex marriages, extending marriage equality to that state.
"I am so inspired by the UCC's bold, unwavering witness for marriage equality," said the Rev. J. Bennett Guess, executive minister of Local Church Ministries. "We would be hard pressed to find a single state where the UCC's support for marriage equality is not making a profound difference, both in the changing of hearts and minds at the grassroots level and in shaping fairer public policy that offers greater legal recognitions and protections for LGBT families."
U.S. District Judge Robert J. Shelby said in his ruling that Utah’s law prohibiting same-sex marriages, passed by voters in 2004, violates the rights of LGBT people because it violates rights to equal protection under the Constitution. Shelby’s ruling specifically mentioned the UCC, referencing how churches are entitled to religious freedom to decide who they can marry, without imposing any practices on churches that do not approve of marriage equality.
The decision is seen as a major shift since Utah is considered a conservative state, and is home to the Mormon church, which has long been against same-sex marriage. State officials had asked for a stay of the decision, but those claims were denied on Monday, Dec. 23, by Shelby.
"Judge Shelby’s ruling is a powerful reminder that marriage equality does not threaten anyone’s religious freedom—but expands freedom for the growing number of congregations that support and bless the marriages of all of their members," said Andy Lang, executive director of the UCC’s Coalition for LGBT Concerns. "And it’s a reminder that every UCC congregation that adopts and lives according to an Open and Affirming covenant is changing our society for the better."
Eight New Mexico counties have been issuing marriage certificates to all couples since August, and the state Supreme Court was asked to consider the issue for a statewide ruling. New Mexico never had a law permitting or prohibiting same-sex marriages in its history, but marriage applications contained sections for male and female applicants.
"In the court cases, you could make a similar argument – and it’s hard to gauge the influence of amicus briefs – but there were briefs submitted for a faith argument of the marriages that take place in congregations that perform same-sex marriages in the UC and beyond that should be given legal status," said the Rev. Mike Schuenemeyer, UCC executive for health and wholeness advocacy.
With the addition of these two, there are now 18 states and the District of Columbia that recognize the freedom to marry for all citizens. It means that 39.2 percent of the U.S. population (123 million people) lives in a state where same-sex marriage is legal.
One of the key aspects behind the momentum for marriage equality that carried into 2013 was the role that faith leaders and people of faith play in campaigns for the issue, helping move public opinion past the tipping point.
Before the 2012 election season, there were seven states that allowed marriage equality. On top of that, the issue had yet to see any success at the polls with the voting public, as referendums to permit marriage equality repeatedly failed, and laws to state constitutions were continually approved. But all that changed in early November, with Maine, Maryland and Washington all approving laws to allow same-sex marriage.
It was that wave of success that carried into 2013 as nine states extended the freedom to marry to all citizens.
"Coming out of 2012 and the successes at the ballot, there was a lot of momentum, and we noticed the important role faith leaders and people of faith played in moving things forward, particularly where marriage equality was won through legislation at the statehouse and ballot," Schuenemeyer said.
Rhode Island, Delaware and Minnesota enacted marriage equality laws in May, then in late June the U.S. Supreme Court ruled the federal Defense of Marriage Act was unconstitutional because it discriminated against same-sex couples who were legally married.
The U.S. Supreme Court also struck down a California law that prohibited gay marriage, restoring equality to that state. Three more states in the fall – New Jersey, Hawaii and Illinois – were added to the list before New Mexico and Utah came aboard in December.
In 2014, there are potential legal and legislative battles in Oregon, Colorado, Michigan, Pennsylvania and possibly Ohio.
"Even here in Ohio, there remains debate as to whether or not the issue will be put before voters in November or deferred until 2016," Guess said. "Regardless, all across the country, we'll be seeing states making bold moves toward equality and courts are sure to continue to challenge the inequity of legally wedded status for same-gender couples in some states unable to transfer that legal contract across state borders."
The UCC broke ground on LGBT equality by becoming the first mainline denomination to ordain an openly gay minister, the Rev. Bill Johnson, in 1972. Three decades later the UCC stepped to the front of the issue again, when in 2005 the denomination became the first church to affirm marriage equality for all people regardless of their gender.
"There is good momentum, and we can’t take that for granted," Schuenemeyer said. "In the last few years, there are fewer and fewer people who can say they don’t know someone who is an LGBT person. That relationship is a really significant factor, we found, in people coming to an understanding on couple of things.
"Fear mongering from persons who don’t know someone or don’t support it and are in extreme view of LGBT marriage – that just doesn’t resonate anymore when a person knows somebody who should be treated with equal worth and dignity."