One thing was very clear Tuesday morning on the grounds of the U.S. Supreme Court as justices heard the first of two marriage equality cases — the United Church of Christ was present. The denomination mustered a tremendous show of support from leaders, ministers and members who rallied with their fellow LGBT advocates during an unforgettable day.
"Everybody had the sense that something very historic was taking place," said the Rev. Michael Schuenemeyer, UCC executive for LGBT concerns.
"As a person whose office holds the responsibility that deals with the ministry for LGBT support, it was important for me to be present," Schuenemeyer said. "There are thousands of UCC members and clergy who also believe in equality and justice, and work for an inclusive society. As someone who is gay and is married, I have a personal interest in what is before the court and the country. I want to see my spouse and I — and others like us — have those relationships treated with respect and dignity under the law."
The Supreme Court heard the Hollingsworth vs. Perry case Tuesday morning, with the justices probing attorneys from both sides on arguments around California's Proposition 8 that ended marriage equality in that state in 2008. On Wednesday, arguments were made for the Windsor vs. United States cases on the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) of 1996 that denies federal benefits to same-sex couples.
There was an incredible energy at an early morning interfaith service, at which the Rev. J. Bennett Guess, the executive minister of the UCC's Local Church Ministries, preached a sermon of unconditional and affirming love. At a rally that followed at the steps of the Supreme Court, Bishop Yvette Flunder, founder and pastor of the City of Refuge in San Francisco, proclaimed to the crowd of thousands that LGBT couples "deserve the same legal protections granted all married citizens under the law."
"What really stuck with me, and makes me most proud, are the thousands of ways that the UCC's collective fingerprints can be seen on every aspect of the LGBT and marriage equality movement," Guess said. "It is so abundantly clear that the planning, logistics, involvement and participation of today's service and public witness, as just the most recent example, was significantly enhanced due to grassroots UCC involvement."
"I am very proud that so many people, not only from the UCC, but from a whole host of faith traditions, showed their support," Schuenemeyer said. "People spoke eloquently about what marriage equality means, and the rights and obligations that come with it."
As for the Supreme Court decision, the nine justices will likely gather privately soon to discuss how they might initially rule on both cases, then assign justices to write opinions before they issue their ruling, likely in late June. The common consensus from legal analysts dissecting deliberations from the hearings indicates there is no consensus on how the court might rule. Some justices expressed concerns on Tuesday whether they had standing to rule on the case, and even then their options on a ruling range from a wide scope that would score a major victory for LGBT rights, to sidestepping the case altogether. The justices seemed more receptive Wednesday to repealing the federal law.
"While I don't know what the Supreme Court is going to do in these cases, I do know the tide continues to turn toward justice and equality," Schuenemeyer said. "It is no longer about whether we will have marriage equality, but when, and I have feeling it will be soon. Very soon."
The most recent statistics support the argument that public opinion now favors marriage equality.
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 marry legally.
Rev. Leanne Tigert, a UCC pastor from Concord, N.H., traveled to Washington, D.C., for the interfaith service and rally. She attended one of the first national gay rights marches decades ago. "And that was a small sort of ‘we exist' march, and there was a small religious presence," she said. "To be here, now, with this amazing religious and interfaith presence, you can feel the hand of God in people's words and action. It was something my generation of activists would never anticipate would happen."
UCC Central Atlantic Conference Minister the Rev. John R. Deckenback said it was a "day of affirmation with lots of UCC folk in the crowd."
"The warmth of the good-spirited crowd, with their rainbow signs and banner, cut through the damp chill of the morning," he said.