How Churches May Actually Help Gays Win the Marriage Fight


At the top of a hill in Berkeley, California -- above the city's stucco angles, crinkled palm fronds and coffee shops -- Rev. Mark Wilson is seated at a piano. Horizontal bands of evening sun pour through the stained glass to his right, dotting his forehead with pearls of sweat. He closes his eyes.

Today is July 5, 2009 -- the day after Independence Day. Wilson, a broad, boisterous man with a neatly etched triangle of beard, is feeling political.

In a moment, he'll explain to his congregation what 'independence' means to him -- a gay, African-American pastor living in a state that continues to deny same-sex citizens the right to marry. He'll discuss "the flip side of freedom," that shadowy space where those who are only nominally free reside. Mostly, Wilson will do what he's been doing for over a year now: disrupt expectations about Christianity's role in the marriage equality movement.

He's not alone. Over 6,000 members of California's clergy currently stand opposed to Proposition 8. Their ranks stretch from Sacramento to San Diego and include Christians, Muslims, Jews and Buddhists.

Wilson, for his part, could congest a resume with the ways he's been involved. In the months leading up to last November's vote, he made marriage equality a central topic in his sermons; he joined "And Marriage 4 All," a Northern California-based coalition of African-American clergy, political leaders and activists; he even performed a short-notice wedding for five same-sex couples -- complete with a rainbow cake -- two days before the marriage ban passed.

Recently, he's been working for a marriage equality coalition sponsored by two gay rights groups ("And Marriage 4 All" and "And Castro For All"). He's also joined a telephone conference committee that's organizing the Marriage Equality March in October in Washington D.C. On August 29, he will serve as a panelist for an advocacy program, sponsored by Socialist Action, in San Francisco.

"It's not an issue about sin," he told me in late June. It's an issue about justice. It's an issue about two people trying to have the same rights and benefits. Not only that, but the dignity, the pride, the respect for the relationship -- just like anybody else would want to have."

Many members of California's faith community besides Wilson have found creative ways to take a stand: at least 10 were arrested in May for acts of civil disobedience following the Supreme Court's upholding of Proposition 8; two occupy seats on the board of directors for Equality California, one of the state's largest GLBT advocacy networks. A few are working on social networking campaigns that involve services like YouTube and Twitter.

Some have even announced they will not perform any marriages -- gay or straight -- until the ban is dissolved. Art Cribbs, a minister in southern California, joined a Cleveland-based campaign called Refuse-to-Sign in early July. A nationwide alliance of progressive clergy, Refuse-to-Sign aims to divide marriage into a two-step process: a secular, legislative aspect, in which gay and straight couples are granted all the benefits straight marriage affords; and a religious aspect, where they can celebrate their union at a sympathetic church, synagogue or mosque. It's this clear Church/state demarcation, according to Cribbs, that is essential to safeguarding civil liberties.

"When I insist that my theology, my religion, my faith, determines how others live, that restricts their access to the same privileges, opportunities and rights of others," he told me. "I could not, with any integrity, perform a wedding for one class of people and know that another class of people would be denied."

In the wake of Proposition 8's passage, secular GLBT advocates agreed that the Christian Right had monopolized the debate's religious angle -- that progressive faith leaders had been underutilized. Most now agree that winning marriage equality means buttressing institutional efforts with a strong faith message.

"One of the key things moving forward will be for us as a movement, along with those partners, to continue to broaden out, even beyond what I would call our very 'core base' of progressive faith community allies," said Andrea Shorter, Equality California's coalition director. Clergy, she added, "are often better equipped to do that job than some of us who are long time activist/advocates in a secular movement."

In recent months, EQCA has forged alliances with some of the state's largest interfaith networks, including California Faith for Equality and the Bay Area Coalition of Welcoming Congregations. Additional partners include members of the Unitarian Universalist and Quaker communities, along with a sprinkling of Catholics, Mormons and Baptists.

In October, EQCA will launch a series of regional, faith-centered meetings. The hope for these gatherings, Shorter said, is to convince members of conservative church communities that supporting same-sex marriage is in line with their beliefs.

"Should we expect to move a near majority of the most zealous conservatives to our side of the fight for equality?" Shorter said. "No. Clearly there are those whose hearts and minds refuse to change. At the very least, we can connect with and build alliances with those among them who do value inclusion, equality, justice, separation between church and state and are of the frame of mind and heart to actually question, to challenge teachings that promote discrimination and condemnation against their neighbor."

Wilson, whose own sexual orientation has more than once put him in the trajectory of the Church's wagging finger, believes sidestepping bureaucracy is the best way to win support.

"The thing we're realizing is that we've got to get more grassroots within some of the religious communities," he said. "I think we need to get around some of the Church leaders and get to the lay people. Because there's a lot of misunderstanding around the lies that are being told."

A Jagged Landscape

Wilson, Nixon and Cribbs have all at one time or another been affiliated with the United Church of Christ, one of two major Christian groups in the U.S. to publicly endorse same-sex marriage (the other is the Unitarian Universalist Association of Congregations). On July 4, 2005, the UCC passed a resolution titled "Equal Marriage Rights for All." Among other factors, it cites "radically inclusive love" and "abundant welcome for all" as its reasons for sanctioning same-sex unions. Marriage equality, the resolution concludes, is "an issue deserving of serious, faithful discussion by people of faith."

The Unitarians' 1996 "Support of the Right to Marry for Same-Sex Citizens" statement reads similarly. Highlighting the "inherent worth and dignity of every person," it urges member congregations to make their position known on both ecclesial and public levels. It also encourages media outreach initiatives and campaigns targeted at "home communities."

Still, such resolutions are far from the national norm. They point instead to a jagged ideological landscape punctuated by discord and ambiguity. The findings of a couple Pew surveys from this summer provide a partial illustration: Though six out of every 10 individuals who left the Catholic Church in 2008 did so because of its stance on homosexuality and abortion, Christian institutions currently experiencing the fastest growth in membership are those with the most conservative views. And while opposition to same-sex marriage decreased slightly among Catholics between 2007-08, it gained strength among white Evangelical Protestants during the same period.

So while some churches are beginning to toy with an increased flexibility on the issue of homosexuality -- an Episcopal Church in Los Angeles announced on Aug. 4 that it had named two gay bishops, effectively lifting a de facto restriction on such ordinations -- most maintain a draconian official posture. The National Association of Evangelicals, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, the Catholic Church, the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod, the Southern Baptist Convention and the United Methodist Church are all officially opposed to gay marriage.

Homosexuality (and by extension, same-sex marriage) stands in clear violation of numerous Biblical scriptures, the National Association of Evangelicals argues. In its official policy statement on same-sex marriage, the NAE "call[s] upon pastors and theologians, along with medical and sociological specialists within the Christian community to expand research on the factors which give rise to homosexuality and to develop therapy, pastoral care and congregational support leading to complete restoration."

But according to many in the progressive faith community, interpretations like the NAE's are anachronistic and slipshod. John Tamilio, a co-founder of the "Refuse-to Sign Campaign" (of which Cribbs is a part), believes that using the Bible to condemn gay marriage is archaic -- an institutional veil to mask homophobic fears.

"It's dangerous to quote scripture without doing the necessary historical interpretation of what the text meant in that context," he said. "I don't think [Christian conservatives] want a biblical definition of marriage. You can use the Bible to support polygamy; you can use the Bible to support underage marriage."

Indeed, when closely examined, the religious Right's 'marriage sanctity' argument includes a messy tangle of contradictions. While many opponents of same-sex marriage invoke two passages from Leviticus (18:22 and 20:13) as their basis for condemning homosexuality, they rarely mention that Leviticus also bans eating pork (11:1-8) and shaving one's beard (19:27). And though Leviticus specifically refers to homosexuality as "an abomination," conservative Christians rarely condemn the practice of eating shellfish, another "abomination" (11:10), with equal ardor.

"There are a lot of Levitical laws that most people would say, 'whoa, we don't want to do that,' " Tamilio said. "The way we understand [marriage] today is very, very different from the Biblical writers."

Conservatives in California must also grapple with a prickly legislative issue: In spite of currently refusing to recognize any new same-sex marriages, the Golden State affords benefits to the approximately 18,000 of these marriages that took place between June 15 and November 4, 2008. This essentially creates a two-tiered demography of GLBT citizenship -- one whose beneficiaries owe their privileges solely to a five-month lottery of opportunity.

Such a discrepancy "simply puts a more glaring light on the absurdity of Proposition 8," Cribbs said.

"It's a microcosm of the entire issue nationally," Tamilio said. "It's hypocritical."

Moving Forward

The battle over Proposition 8 was the most expensive ballot measure on a social issue in the history of the United States. The amendment passed with 52 percent of California's popular vote, and thanks to over $80 million gathered from individual donors and organizations -- many of them religiously affiliated. Focus on the Family, a conservative media advocacy group that contributed $657,000 in support of the marriage ban, declined a request for interview.

Twenty-nine percent of those who voted "yes" did so for religious reasons, according to a poll conducted in January by the San Francisco Chronicle. Five percent cited "moral reasons." Sixty-four percent of those who identified themselves as Catholics voted yes, as did 65 percent of Protestants.

"I think this whole thing with Prop 8 that passed made it possible for a simple majority to discriminate against a minority group," Wilson said. "Churchgoing people helped to put that in place, the same way that churchgoing people helped to put slavery in place."

"I hope in any way that I can to continue to be a voice in the faith community," he added.

Since he began preaching at 14, Wilson has understood the discomfort of living in contradiction, of traversing his own identity's tension of faith and sexuality. His sermons are a histrionic reminder of the weight he bears: He stomps, claps and shouts his way through liberation theology's intellectual landscapes, then stops on a dime. He muses over the meager dimensions of a mustard seed, then delivers a fiery condemnation of Dick Cheney. This is Wilson's style. Even in conversations, his topical trajectories are hard to map: Ezekiel begets Spike Lee begets Cuban politics. All with a dive-bomber's confidence.

On July 5, he poses a question to his congregation. "If you had a chance to write a letter to the government, what would you say? This is your chance. Say it in this community."

One by one, they rise to speak.

"Patriotism is a luxury we can no longer afford," says one man.

Another woman decries politicians' use of God's name as "a cloak for political agendas."

"I would ask you to turn your attention to those who are hurting -- those who are without," says one woman, seated next to her wife. "Stop trying to legislate love."

Their voices, some quieter than others, flit past Tapestry Ministries' ribcage rafters, oil paintings and butterfly kites. They fill up a hall painted gold by the California sun, which hasn't quite set.

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