Four historic victories for marriage equality on Election Day could prove to be the turning point for the issue in our country, signaling a change in popular opinion. Leaders and clergy in United Church of Christ, which affirmed marriage equality in 2005, say the wins will have a lasting impact for the future of the issue, particularly because the decision came from the vote of the people in four states.
Prior to Nov. 6, six states and the District of Columbia allowed same-sex marriages, but those rights came from legislation, the results of laws enacted by state governments. When put before the voters, marriage equality had never passed in 32 tries in 14 years. That changed a week ago when Maryland, Maine and Washington approved marriage equality laws, and Minnesota residents rejected a constitutional ban limiting marriage between a man and woman.
"It feels different from the grassroots instead of from legislation. The voters had a chance to say what we think," said the Rev. Barbara Kershner-Daniel, senior pastor at Evangelical Reformed UCC in Frederick, Md. Kershner-Daniel adds that people are hungry for a voice from a progressive church like the UCC. "They see we can make a difference on this issue, and it may pay off beyond marriage equality."
Support for marriage equality in the United States has increased by 10 percent in just four years since the previous presidential election. A recent Pew Research Center study finds that 48 percent of Americans favor marriage equality – up from 39 percent in 2008 – and 43 percent oppose it, dropping from 51 percent.
How marriage equality won at the polls
Faith played a prominent role in the support around the issue during the campaign season, with UCC clergy taking active roles.
In Maryland, Kershner-Daniel thinks the ground work and one-on-one conversations from people of faith won out. "We realized that as people of faith we had a perspective we had to share with our neighbors [about] who we are and what we believe," Kershner-Daniel said. "It was a lot of grassroots work that made it happen. We were able to engage people in healthy ways to say there is another religious perspective of this civil rights issue."
The same was true in the Pacific Northwest. In Washington, Conference Minister the Rev. Mike Denton said "the ballot initiative had the largest religious coalition [in favor of marriage equality] put together in history. That was something new for this area." Denton says his region is "starting to look at ways, and it's very early on, at supporting other states where [marriage equality] may come up."
The constitutional amendment in Minnesota was defeated in part because people of faith took an intentional and visible stand for equal rights. At the center of the discussion, the Minnesotans United for All Families coalition, said the Rev. Obadiah (Oby) Ballinger, helped change the perception in the state from exclusion to embrace for the LGBTQ community. Ballinger, a pastor at Community UCC in St. Paul Park, took an active role with Minnesotans United for All Families, taking leave from church ministry to work to oppose the proposed amendment.
"As people of faith, we demonstrated that we opposed the amendment because of our faith, not in spite of it," he added. "We organized congregation members to have conversations with undecided Minnesotans with intentional, faith-sensitive training and follow-up coaching. We persistently called on clergy to fulfill their role as opinion-shapers in the public square by preaching and writing letters to local news outlets against the amendment. And we connected sacred worship with opportunities to put our faith into action, such as the All Saints worship that included a request for people to give time to get-out-the-vote efforts.
"Throughout the campaign, we made it clear to the public that this amendment is counter to religious values, whatever might be said by the Catholic hierarchy and evangelical leaders pushing for its passage. At the very least, our faith work gave permission for faithful Catholics and Lutherans -- the largest religious traditions in the state -- to vote 'no' on the amendment as an expression of their sacred values."
Toward the future
While there was celebration from the supporters of marriage equality in the four states, there's more work that lies ahead, says Kershner-Daniel, because 30 states still restrict same-sex marriages.
"We can enjoy what has happened, but as long as other states don't offer the same benefits, we have some work to be done," she said.
As Central Atlantic Conference Minister, the Rev. John R. Deckenback has churches in Maryland, Delaware (one state that affirmed marriage equality), and New Jersey, a state that may legalize same-sex marriages in 2013. Deckenback says that there is strong support for marriage equality from UCC congregations in New Jersey.
"One of the great assets in Maryland is the past decade we built a strong coalition," said Deckenback, crediting Kershner-Daniel and others for stepping up and helping build that organization of people of faith. "A similar coalition exists in New Jersey. Several UCC clergy have testified before the [New Jersey] legislature last year. However in Maryland, we had the whole support and encouragement of the governor, Mike O'Malley. We don't have that, yet, in New Jersey. Let's hope his position evolves on the issue."
Faith communities in favor of marriage equality organized to vocalize their position in preparation for the elections, Ballinger claims. Instead of more customary practices of marches, prayer vigils and worship, the UCC in Minnesota also relied on respectful dialogue -- which should prove helpful in the future.
"Our UCC congregations have awakened to understand the power they can have on public dialogue by claiming and embodying who they are -- communities where disagreement and dialogue is possible without losing a greater unity," Ballinger said. "Change for the better in the public square is possible -- and will continue in the future -- when our UCC churches take to heart Jesus' description of disciples as wise as serpents and innocent as doves."
The Minnesota decision did not guarantee marriage equality because the constitutional ban did not pass, so the final word still lies ahead there, but Ballinger remains hopeful.
"We can continue to learn from the winning strategies already present in the world of secular organizing," he said. "And we can be places that foster peaceful dialogue and even open dissension among our church members without reducing our prophetic voice to a mere whimper in public."
The United Church of Christ has a long history of affirming and working for marriage equality. At the 2005 biennial General Synod, the denomination passed a resolution affirming equal marriage rights for all couples, regardless of gender.