Unitarian Universalists moved the needle on gay marriage

The Thinker by Rodin

Marriages between gays or lesbians seem to be a fading issue in this country. In certain parts of the country, particularly in Southern states, the issue is still radioactive. Overall it is succumbing to a number of forces, probably the most important of which is simply demographics. The people that care the most about it are dying, and those who are comfortable with it tend to be younger.

Still, it is remarkable how quickly the tables have turned. Just a few years ago I was hearing from friends who were against gay marriage that only unelected judges were allowing gay marriage, not the people. “In every state where voters have had a say, it’s been turned down.” That’s no longer true, as Maine voters approved gay marriage by referendum in 2012. We have legislators paid to make these decisions. Vermont, of course, was the first to have civil unions and was the first to legalize gay marriage in 2009, over the veto of Governor Douglas. Legislators in New Hampshire and the District of Columbia followed Vermont’s lead in 2009. In 2011, New York State joined the club. In 2012 it was Washington State. In 2013, the floodgates opened. Legislators approved gay marriage in Maryland, Rhode Island, Delaware, Minnesota, Hawaii and Illinois.

Gay marriage is now legal in 17 states, and it is being disputed in court in states you would not expect, like Tennessee, Utah and Indiana. These rulings were prompted by last year’s Supreme Court decision in Windsor v. United States, which struck down Section 3 of the Defense of Marriage Act. The ruling made lawful gay marriages legal for federal purposes. And because of the Supremacy Clause in the U.S. constitution, many federal judges are invalidating state marriage laws against gay marriage. The Supreme Court will likely get to rule on the issue again, which last year was narrowly tailored. While our Supreme Court tends to be conservative, it has a libertarian streak. It is likely that within a few years that laws or state constitutional amendments outlawing gay marriage in the United States will become null and void, like sodomy laws.

This kind of rapid change is pretty breathtaking, even for me. In 2006, I disparaged my state of Virginia. In 2005, Virginia voters approved a constitutional amendment outlawing gay marriage in the state. That seemed to cement prejudice into law for decades. I wrote:

Yet the time of their repeal will come eventually. It may take 50 years. It may take a hundred years. Yet it will happen in time, yes even here in Virginia. Just as we once hung our heads in shame for tolerating evils like slavery, just as we flagrantly hung on to white and black only schools as recently as 1964, the time will come when we will look back on these sad modern times wholly aghast that we could have ever been so shallow, intolerant and mean spirited.

So how is Virginia doing with the whole gay marriage thing in 2014? Due to the Supreme Court’s decision, our Democratic Attorney General refuses to enforce that part of our state constitution, but that’s kind of moot at the moment. That’s because in February, our federal district court in Bostic v. Rainey invalidated our state’s constitutional amendment. The judged stayed the ruling on appeal. The case went to the Fourth Circuit Court, which heard oral arguments on May 13. It’s likely the ruling will be upheld. Since our Attorney General won’t appeal the ruling if it is upheld, gay marriage will likely be legal in Virginia sometime this year. In short, it looks like it will have taken eight years, not 50. Meanwhile, the polling here in Virginia has totally switched in eight years. According to a Quinnipiac poll released March 31, fifty percent of Virginia voters favor gay marriage, with 42 percent opposed.

While some of this is due to demographic forces, it’s also due in part to a lot of people being very noisy on the issue. Most Americans get it. They may find gay marriage morally repugnant, but they can’t get over the fairness argument. It’s simply not fair to extend to one class of citizen privileges not afforded to another, and it sure appears to be a violation of both the Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments to do so. Increasingly most of those disgusted by gay marriage are simply willing to hold their nose rather than fight it. There’s also the general sense that fighting it is futile.

How did this happen so fast? It happened because of a convergence of various forces as well as demographics. I am proud to say that my denomination, Unitarian Universalism, was the point of the spear on this issue, at least as a social movement. Back in 2009, I wrote about our national convention that I attended in conservative Utah. We took over the convention center in Salt Lake City and had an eight story banner “Standing on the Side of Love” going down the side of the convention center. It was bold, breathtaking and in 2009 felt pretty futile, particularly since we had converged on the bright red state of Utah.

The banner since then has been everywhere. It is hard to find pictures of any march anywhere for gay marriage without seeing the banner. In demonstrations and marches, the banner is prominent, with mostly Unitarian Universalists (UUs) carrying the banner. It’s not a hard message to grasp: UUs take the side of love, not hate. The banner is still in use, and its use is not just to help gays and lesbians acquire marital rights. It is also being used for the many of us UUs that support immigrant rights, and other endeavors that require love and compassion as a solution. Of course, the movement is more than a banner, it’s people, and our current president as well as past president has been leading our denomination on the issue.

I wish I could point to other great successes like this among UUs. There have been many prominent UUs throughout the years (including Florence Nightingale and Charles Darwin) and more than a few presidents, but as leaders of social change we have often been laggards. (I am thinking about racial tolerance and sexism in particular.) That has changed. UUs have proven instrumental at moving the needle on this fundamental issue of civil rights and fairness. UUs everywhere, but the Standing on the Side of Love team in particular, have certainly earned my gratitude. I’ve never been prouder to be a UU.

I hope we can keep this streak going and keep moving our country toward acting as if love and compassion is the core of who we are as a nation. We are now trying to move the needle on the child refugee crisis on our southern border, among other issues. I hope that you will join us.