News that New Jersey has become the 14th state in the nation to allow marriage equality, albeit rather unexpectedly, came as a pleasant surprise Friday afternoon to UCC leaders.
A state judge ruled that same-sex couples must be allowed to marry in New Jersey because failure to recognize same-sex marriages deprives couples of the same rights that are guaranteed by the federal government. Judge Mary C. Jacobson made her decision based on the U.S. Supreme Court's ruling in United States v. Windsor. She also said that same-sex marriages must be allowed in the state to obtain equal protection under the New Jersey Constitution.
The Rev. Ann Ralosky was sitting inside her church, First Congregational Church in Montclair N.J., when she heard a large cheer from the floors above. New Jersey United For Marriage, the leading campaign for marriage equality in the state, uses space above First Congregational as its campaign headquarters, and those gathered erupted in jubilation at the news Friday afternoon.
"Just so much joy for those couples, many of whom are members of our congregation and have been living in long-term loving relationships – with children in many cases,” Ralosky said of her reaction to the news. "In this church, when we perform a marriage, we call it marriage and we call it a wedding, because in this community it carries that sacred weight. From my perspective it’s joy and excitement, and maybe I’ll have to clear my calendar to do some weddings this fall.”
As the ruling came in a superior court, it could end up in the New Jersey Supreme Court in the future. For now, UCC supporters of marriage equality think it represents a step in the right direction.
"While it is likely that the judge’s ruling will be appealed, we are elated that marriage equality continues to move toward reality in New Jersey, and we take great pride in celebrating that the UCC has been a faithful, bold voice at the forefront of this historic movement,” said the Rev. J. Bennett Guess, a national officer of the UCC and executive minister of Local Church Ministries.
Central Atlantic Conference Minister the Rev. John R. Deckenback believes that the marriage equality movement "is a bandwagon. Fundamentally, people are beginning to realize it’s the right thing to do,” Deckenback said.
In the Central Atlantic Conference of the UCC, Deckenback has witnessed how marriage equality has prevailed in each of the states in which he ministers.
"Look for example at the District of Columbia, they passed marriage equality, and the world is not falling apart,” Deckenback said. "Then Maryland and Delaware realized it in 2013. And it makes sense New Jersey would follow, despite the governor’s wishes. I think it’s marvelous.”
"Years ago, under the leadership of the Rev. John Deckenback, the UCC’s Central Atlantic Conference made a commitment that marriage equality would be one of its priority goals, and all across the Central Atlantic Conference, which includes New Jersey, there has been a groundswell of courageous leadership on this issue from UCC pastors and congregations,” Guess said. "We can already see the day, soon, when New Jersey will join Maryland, the District of Columbia, Delaware, and someday Virginia to make the entire Central Atlantic Conference a region fully welcoming and embracing of LGBT families, and we’ll know the UCC played a pivotal role in making that happen."
Today's New Jersey ruling faces a few challenges - a likely appeal, and state governor Chris Christie, who has been outspoken against marriage equality. But the issue's supporters aren't going away.
Ralosky said First Congregational, whose LGBT membership is about 30 percent, and New Jersey United For Marriage have integrated to push equality in several ways. Campaign members have spent time in worship services at the congregation, and the church was one of the strongest supporters of the campaign effort.
"It’s lovely to have them in the building and gives you tremendous amount of optimism about the future of equality,” said Ralosky. She also testified as a faith leader on marriage equality before the New Jersey Senate in Trenton in January 2012.
In a Public Religion Research Institute survey, a majority (52 percent) of Americans favor allowing gay and lesbian couples to marry legally, compared to 42 percent who are opposed. That survey also showed that along religious lines, more than 8-in-10 (81 percent) Jewish Americans, roughly three-quarters (76 percent) of religiously unaffiliated Americans, 59 percent of Hispanic Catholics, 58 percent of white Catholics, and 55 percent of white mainline Protestants favor allowing LGBT couples to legally wed.
The UCC's General Synod affirmed full marriage equality for all couples in 2005, making it the first mainline Protestant denomination to allow same-sex marriages in the United States. The General Synod also stated that government should not interfere with couples who choose to marry, and instead should share fully equally in the rights, responsibilities and commitment of legally recognized marriages. There are now more than 1,000 open and affirming churches registered with the UCC Coalition for LGBT Concerns.
If the ruling holds, New Jersey would join 13 others states, along with Washington, D.C., in permitting same-sex marriages: California, Connecticut, Delaware, Iowa, Maine, Massachusetts, Maryland, Minnesota, New Hampshire, New York, Rhode Island, Vermont, and Washington.