Written by Anthony Moujaes
While there are only a handful of United Church of Christ congregations in Utah, the dozen churches are leading the charge in their communities, advocating for LGBT rights in the state. Ten of the 12 Utah churches are now Open and Affirming (ONA) congregations, acting as visible witnesses of Christian hospitality, lifting up equal rights for all people.
Orem Community Church UCC, in Orem, Utah, is the latest congregation to affirm LGBT equality when it voted a few weeks ago to become Open and Affirming. The congregation is currently working with the UCC Coalition for LGBT Concerns (soon to be called the Open and Affirming Coalition) toward finalizing its covenant.
"We provide a safe haven, to be welcomed for exactly who you are," said the Rev. Sue Artt, interim conference minster for the Rocky Mountain Conference. "It's a wide welcome and breath of fresh air for people who need that."
In fact, the InterMountain Association (which includes all 12 Utah churches and three Wyoming congregations) voted to become Open and Affirming during the UCC Rocky Mountain Conference annual meeting June 12-14, becoming one of the few associations across the denomination to declare itself ONA.
"It was kind of matter-of-fact," said the Rev. Gage Church, pastor of Congregational UCC in Ogden, Utah. "Everyone was very on board with it. There was a question if it required all the churches in the association to be ONA, but that's not the case."
Church added that the decision allows the association to be "a voice for the people on equality in all settings of the church and beyond, be it government or social settings," he said.
The InterMountain Association has pledged to take its LGBT advocacy all the way to the highest court in the land. Utah state leaders plan to appeal a decision by a U.S. Appeals Court that affirmed a lower court's decision to strike down the state ban on same sex marriage. That could set the stage for the U.S. Supreme Court to take on the issue again after ruling last year against the Defense of Marriage Act.
Marriage equality advocates in the association plan to be bold and visible if the case is taken by the Supreme Court. Church mentioned ideas such as letters to the editor in local newspapers and collaboration with interfaith partners as some actions they could take.
While Utah is one of the Rocky Mountain Conference's more conservative contexts for ministry, Artt says, in part because of the presence of the Church of Latter Day Saints in all walks of public life, the local UCC churches are all about inclusivity.
"For some parts of the UCC, I'm sure hearing of this bold, public, voice in what are often seen as very conservative states is inspiring," Artt said.
As for the marriage equality appeal, the ruling in Utah is significant since it's the first time a federal appeals court has struck down a state ban of same-sex marriage. The federal circuit court decision against Utah's ban also applies to five others states in the circuit, four of which (Wyoming, Colorado, Kansas and Oklahoma) currently ban same-sex marriage.
"It's a very good thing the Appeals Court upheld the decision, that gives us yet another opportunity to continue to hold open that space for all of God's beloved to enjoy equal rights and recognition under the law," Artt said.
In the 10th Circuit's decision, which was 2-1, the opinion of the court was that marriage is a fundamental right, and that the state's reasons for preserving a same-sex marriage ban are based on the flawed idea that marriage and procreation are linked. State officials also argued that the ban should be upheld because voters approved it, but the court said the right to marriage isn't something to be decided through opinion polls or the ballot box.
"This issue is beyond public opinion now, and folks here are starting to know there is a religious community this is important to," Church said.
"For most people who have any knowledge of Utah, it's seen as an ultra-conservative state that hasn't heard a progressive voice like ours," Artt said. "It's encouraging."