The 2013 calendar year could be another banner year for marriage equality in the United States. It should also be another banner year for visible support of LGBT issues by congregations of the United Church of Christ.
Rhode Island, Illinois and New Jersey are likely to take up the issue of marriage equality this year, with lawmakers in all three states already introducing laws in the state legislatures this week. UCC congregations stand ready to ask those lawmakers to vote "yes."
"Where ever we see movement for marriage equality in the U.S., we find UCC leadership engaged, participating in coalitions and taking action for equality and justice," said the Rev. Mike Schuenemeyer, the UCC executive for health and wholeness advocacy. "They skillfully and effectively build relationships, canvass and phone bank to share their stories and offer messages that make clear that everyone should have the freedom to marry the person they love."
The issues are the first for marriage equality issues since the November elections, when voters in three states (Maine, Maryland and Washington) supported marriage equality referendums. It was the first time in U.S. history that a popular vote of the people supported marriage for same-sex couples. There are nine states, along with Washington, D.C., that recognize same-sex marriages: Connecticut, Iowa, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New York, Vermont, and Washington.
Political pundits indicated election results in November signaled a change in ideology on the issue, and Illinois, Rhode Island and New Jersey may see the benefits of that momentum. The U.S. Supreme Court also plans to hear two cases in 2013 to rule on marriage equality.
Rhode Island may be ready for a vote by the end of the month, and while a previous New Jersey bill in February 2012 was vetoed by the governor, the legislature has a year to work past it. The Illinois Senate attempted to vote on the Religious Freedom and Marriage Fairness Act before a new legislature is sworn in Jan.9, but will wait because key supporters were absent during the lame-duck sessions.
The Illinois measure seemingly surfaced quickly, and though it won’t go for a vote right away, it allows UCC congregations in the state a chance to ramp up more support.
"We’re rallying around and asking people to contact their representatives and senators," Illinois Conference Minister the Rev. Jorge Morales said. "It caught us by surprise, so we can catch up [with this extra time]."
The Rev. Jerry Bennett, a program coordinator for the Illinois South Conference in Highland, said he supports the measure. "Those who believe in Christ know according to Scripture we are no longer Jew or Greek, male or female, et cetera so I think that generally Scripture says we should all be loving and caring equally with all people," Bennett told a local news organization. "There are, I think, well over 100 federal benefits that do not accrue to gay or lesbian couples even if they have a civil union in the state of Illinois, they’re still denied the federal benefits."
The bill’s sponsor, Sen. Heather Steans, says it’s a matter of time before Illinois fully recognizes same-sex marriages as support for the issue continues to grow. "This is never going to be an easy one, but it's only going to get easier," Steans said. The state first permitted civil unions 18 months ago.
"We are confident we have the votes to pass the Religious Freedom and Marriage Fairness Act," Steans said. "If we’d had full attendance, we’d be passing this legislation today."
The Illinois bill has its share of challenges from state Republicans and the faith community through Chicago Cardinal Francis George. He started a recent campaign to convince the state legislature not to pass the Religious Freedom and Marriage Fairness Act. Illinois governor Pat Quinn and U.S. senator Dick Durbin – both Catholics – have expressed their support on the issue. President Barack Obama, a former Illinois state and U.S. senator, has also weighed in with his support.
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.