Support for marriage equality in Texas may be small in scope compared with other regions of the country, but for select leaders of the United Church of Christ, Wednesday was a great day for equality of all Texans. The state’s ban prohibiting same-sex marriage was struck down in federal court Feb. 26, a decision some UCC ministers believe is the first of many steps for justice and fairness for all people.
"The Texas court ruling striking down the ban on marriage equality is hopeful, but not the final word in this state," said the Rev. Douglas Anders, conference minister for the South Central Conference of the UCC. "Those who support marriage equality — a very distinct minority in this state — know, for us, the journey may be long, but we stand committed in what we see as right, just and fair for all of God's people."
The decision, which will be appealed to the 5th Circuit Court, is viewed as a landmark win for LGBT equality in a conservative state. The Texas law was the fifth ban on same-sex marriage to be ruled unconstitutional in court in the last three months — the others were in Utah, Oklahoma, Virginia and Kentucky.
The trend in court decisions favoring marriage equality mirrors a recent study by the Public Religion Research Institute. It cites a change in Americans’ opinions of same-sex marriage since 2003, when Massachusetts became the first state to legalize marriage equality.
"LGBT people are citizens of the United States and Texas, and we should be afforded those protections under the constitution," said Texas-native the Rev. Jo Hudson, gathering pastor of Extravagance UCC. "I’m hopeful and prayerful about [the ruling]."
Support for same-sex marriage has grown by 21 percentage points in the last decade, according the research. Currently, 53 percent of the U.S. population favors allowing gay and lesbian couples to legally marry, compared to 41 percent who oppose. In 2003, less than one-third (32 percent) of Americans supported allowing gay and lesbian people to legally marry.
"The reality is our society is changing on this issue and hearts-minds-spirits are changed when people see the basic inequality in how we treat LGBT persons on this marriage-equality issue," Anders said.
In the courtroom, attorneys making a case for marriage limitations based on the ability to procreate and the concept of "traditional marriage" are losing the argument. U.S. District Judge Orlando Garcia rejected the latest attempt in his decision, saying "[p]rocreation is not and has never been a qualification for marriage" and "tradition, alone, cannot form a rational basis for a law."
"It’s a great day for Texas, and all its people," Hudson said. "When the state moves to provide civil rights for a population that is denied those rights, it’s better for everybody. It’s consistent with my understanding of the Gospel, that we are all created in God’s image."
The Texas ruling follows other federal lawsuits that challenge same-sex marriage bans. Cases in Utah and Oklahoma are headed for the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals after their laws prohibiting marriage equality were struck down by U.S. district judges. Another case in Virginia is headed to the 4th Circuit Court of Appeals, and part of Kentucky’s ban was ruled unconstitutional. A Michigan judge is hearing arguments for another case on that state's same-sex marriage ban.
"As we have seen in other states, the movement for marriage equality is growing and the pace of the journey is slower in some states than others," Anders said.
There are 17 states that permit the freedom to marry in addition to the District of Columbia. There are federal lawsuits challenging bans on same-sex marriage in 14 states (including the five cases in U.S. appeals courts).
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 the denomination became the first church to affirm marriage equality for all people regardless of their gender in 2005.