On the surface, the open house event for a photo exhibit at Lake Oswego United Church of Christ in Oregon may not seem like an essential step toward marriage equality. However, the Rev. Jennie Ott, pastor at Lake Oswego UCC, believes each opportunity to discuss the freedom to marry for all people is vital and will pay off during the election season. That’s when LGBT supporters have the chance to vote the state’s same-sex marriage ban out of the constitution.
Lake Oswego UCC and Beit Haverim, a Jewish congregation with which it shares space, are collaborating with Oregon United for Marriage, holding an open house on Feb. 9 to raise awareness and connecting with Christian and Jewish communities to help them understand the importance of marriage equality.
"The congregation is so excited to do this in our community," Ott said. "We want to do as much work and have as many conversations ahead of time before the election."
Oregon United for Marriage is a group of individuals and organizations working to win the freedom to marry for same-sex couples in Oregon. Congregations in Oregon are being asked to host the exhibit as a way to invite the community into the marriage equality conversation.
"Our church has been Open and Affirming for 20 years, and two-and-a-half years ago we signed on to publicly support marriage equality," Ott said. "When we did that we realized we needed more education in helping people say why they supported marriage equality beyond just, ‘It’s the right thing.’"
Guests at Lake Oswego UCC’s open house can view the Oregon United for Marriage traveling photo exhibit, titled ‘Open Hearts = Open Minds, People of Faith Supporting Freedom to Marry,’ which features stories and perspectives of clergy, parents of gay children and LGBT couples of faith who support the freedom to marry the person they love. The event also features speakers including Ott, Rabbi Alan Berg, of Beit Haverim, the Rev. Cecil Prescod, minister of faith formation at Ainsworth UCC in Portland, Oreg., and the Rev. Tara Wilkins, executive director of Community of Welcoming Congregations, which was founded in 1992 as a faith community advocating for the inclusiveness of LGBT people.
"[The open house] is unique for this area and this community, which is not known for its progressive view, even though the region is," Ott said. "The UCC congregations in metro Portland, almost all are Open and Affirming and are active in the area [of LGBT rights].
As for as marriage equality at the Oregon polls, an issue asking citizens to repeal the constitutional ban that limits the freedom to marry is likely headed for the ballot in the November 2014 election. There are about 130,000 signatures of a required 116,000 to a petition questioning the constitutional ban, which meets the requirement to have a referendum placed on the ballot. Wilkins wants to see about 160,000 signatures before the petition is submitted in late February.
The need to host open conversations about marriage equality in Oregon congregations was a lesson learned in the November 2012 election, when Washington successfully passed a measure permitting same-sex marriage.
"When [the public] sees people of faith willing to stand up for the LGBT community, it’s an opportunity for healing," said Wilkins, adding that CWC and the Central Pacific Conference of the UCC were in Washington advocating for marriage equality. "There are a lot of opportunities when we bring our voices into the community for healing work. I’m tired of visiting kids in hospitals who tried to commit suicide because they feel God or their church doesn’t love them.
"It shows we can make a difference. If we advocate, we can make a difference."
There are 28 states with constitutional bans against marriage equality, with court cases in Oklahoma and Utah set for federal appeal after they were overturned for violation of the U.S. Constitution. There are 16 other states where federal or state lawsuits have been filed to overturn state constitutional bans on same-sex marriage.
For now, there are currently 17 states, (potentially 19 with Utah and Oklahoma) that recognize marriage equality in addition to the District of Columbia: California, Connecticut, Delaware, Illinois, Iowa, Maine, Massachusetts, Maryland, Minnesota, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, Rhode Island, Vermont, and Washington.
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.