The work of the United Church of Christ, as an advocate for fairness and equality of same-gender marriage and the equal treatment of LGBT persons, is becoming more evident and visible as marriage equality is recognized by more states.
The latest victory for supporters of marriage equality will come in Ohio, when a federal judge will rule on April 14 that Ohio must recognize same-sex marriages legally performed in other states. Though the case is likely headed to a U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals after the decision — as has been the case with similar federal rulings — 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 married in Massachusetts in 2007.
The Rev. Phil Hart, conference minister for the Ohio Conference of the UCC, also celebrates the judge's decision.
"The United Church of Christ has had a long history of being a prophetic voice in our society, especially around the issue of the value and worth of all people," he said. "Marriage equality is more than a political issue of our time; it is a test to see if the deep, core values of our nation will overcome the tiny and weak values promoted by prejudice and fear. There are many same-gender loving couples and families that are very happy on this day. 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!"
While waiting for the written decision, Guess firmly believes U.S. District Judge Timothy Black's ruling will be "another significant milestone toward the inevitable day when marriage equality will be the law in all 50 states." Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine plans to appeal the case.
Ohio's neighbor to the north, Michigan, also had a state ban against same-sex marriage reviewed in federal court. In late March, a judge ruled the Michigan law unconstitutional, and for about a day, same-sex weddings took place before a stay was issued pending an appeal. Now the state is not recognizing those unions as legal.
"We had a flurry of weddings with UCC and UUA clergy. I think we got 300 in before the stay was sent to the Court of Appeals," said the Rev. Campbell Lovett, conference minister for the Michigan Conference of the UCC.
The Rev. Deborah Dean-Ware, pastor at Church of the Good Shepherd in Ann Arbor, Mich., closely watched the case in Michigan unfold in the last year. While she celebrated the 74 same-gender marriages in Washtenaw County, she also realizes there are LGBT couples who were unable to marry within that one-day period.
"I have members who were able to be married, one for 34 years, and it's a delight to know that at least the federal government recognizes their marriage," Dean-Ware said. "But there were several couples not able to marry, and that is a disappointment."
The initial victory in federal court should give LGBT supporters in Michigan an upper hand in the appeals process, Dean-Ware said. Meanwhile, she is calling on supporters of same-sex marriage to be visible and vocal until the 6th Circuit Court hears the case.
"I think what's key for the UCC is visibility. I was in Madison (Wisc.) for 12 years, and the LGBT community in Madison had a fluent relationship," said Dean-Ware, whose congregation is one of two Open and Affirming in the Ann Arbor area. "We need to be clear about our stance. I realize individual churches have to decide that, but we have to be committed, and we have to be outspoken for our love and support of LGBT couples.
"I've been pastoring since 2000, and the struggle around marriage equality has been the most pressing issue in the churches I've served," Dean-Ware added.
Seventeen states, and the District of Columbia, recognize same-sex marriage, but that number could spike pending the outcomes of several legal challenges. Since December, federal judges have continued a trend of overturning state bans on same-sex marriage by relying on the U.S. Supreme Court's decision in two cases last summer that went in favor of marriage equality. Judges in Utah, Oklahoma , Virginia and Texas struck down laws banning same-gender marriages in the last three months, while a federal judge in Kentucky ruled that state must recognize same-sex marriages.
"I am so proud of the leadership that the United Church of Christ has played in getting us to this sea-changing moment," Guess said. "But while it's an admirable thing to arrive early on issues of justice and equality, it feels even better when the rest of the nation starts to catch up with you. That's exactly what's happening now."