Testimony before the VT Legislature’s Senate Judiciary Committee Regarding the Civil Union Law, Spring 2000

Thank you for inviting me to speak before you today.

I am the Rev. Jane Dwinell, and I serve the First Universalist Parish, a Unitarian Universalist congregation, in Derby Line, VT.  My congregation serves Unitarian Universalists from all over Orleans County as well as part of the Eastern Townships of Quebec.  I am also a member of the Board of Trustees of the NH/VT District of Unitarian Universalist Societies, as well as President-Elect of my district’s chapter of the Unitarian Universalist Minister’s Association.

I also serve as a chaplain for the Orleans and Northern Essex County Visiting Nurses and Hospice and North Country Hospital in Newport.  I live in Irasburg.

I am also a seventh generation Vermonter, on both sides of the family, my ancestors having settled the towns of Braintree and Calais.  I grew up here in Montpelier and learned about civil rights and the importance of speaking up for the oppressed – in church.

As a Unitarian Universalist, I am called to speak out against injustice and for civil rights, thus I am here today to let you know that there are people of faith who are in favor of same gender marriage and civil unions.

Our denomination has a long history of faith-based action in the civil rights arena – from the people who worked to end slavery in the early to mid-1800s, to women like Susan B. Anthony who fought tirelessly for women’s rights, to social workers who spoke up for the rights of the mentally ill in the early 1900s, to the clergy and lay people who went South in the 1960s to march for the civil rights of Americans with black skin.  My colleague, the Rev. James Reeb was murdered in Selma, Alabama when he went to march with the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King in 1965.

It is no different for us in the area of rights for gay and lesbian persons.

For the past 30 years our clergy have been performing services of holy union between members of the same gender.  These union ceremonies carry the same weight as marriage within our denomination and are celebrated in the same fashion as weddings of opposite gender couples.  In fact, in 1996 our General Assembly passed a resolution In Support of the Right to Marry for Same-Sex Couples.  Let me share with you the text of that resolution:

SUPPORT OF THE RIGHT TO MARRY FOR SAME-SEX COUPLES

1996 Resolution of Immediate Witness

Because Unitarian Universalists affirm the inherent worth and dignity of every person; and

Because marriage is held in honor among the blessings of life; and

WHEREAS many states, the Congress, and the President of the United States are acting to void the recognition of same-sex marriages and to deny “full faith and credit” to such marriages formalized in Hawaii or any other state;

WHEREAS debate about legally recognized marriage to same-sex couples has focused on the objections of certain religious communities, while the Unitarian Universalist Association has adopted numerous resolutions over the last twenty-six years supporting equal rights for gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgendered persons, including support of Ceremonies of Union between members of the same sex; and

WHEREAS the Unitarian Universalist Association Board of Trustees and the Unitarian Universalist Ministers Association have voted their support for the right to marry for same-sex couples;

THEREFORE, be it resolved that the 1996 General Assembly of the Unitarian Universalist Association adopts a position in support of legal recognition for marriage between members of the same sex;

BE IT further resolved that the 1996 General Assembly urges the Unitarian Universalist Association to make this position known through the media; and

BE IT finally resolved that the 1996 General Assembly of the Unitarian Universalist Association urges the member congregations to proclaim the worth of marriage between any two committed persons and to make this position known in their home communities.

Right after the passage of this resolution, Unitarian Universalist Association President the Rev. John Buehrens asked all same gender couples present to come forward.  Several hundred people gathered on the stage to a standing ovation by the delegates at the Assembly.  It was a powerful and moving moment.

Since the 1996 General Assembly, a similar resolution has been passed at the NH/VT District Annual Meeting, by our District Minister’s Association, and at several Unitarian Universalist churches in Vermont.

We, as a denomination, understand that the right to have long-term, committed heterosexual or homosexual relationships supported and acknowledged by the government is a civil right.  Homosexuals are born, not made.  One’s sexual orientation is as much of a birthright as one’s race.  Why would it be any other way?

Just as people once thought that the earth was flat and that our planet was the center of the universe and had to change their viewpoint once the scientific evidence was in, scientists and psychologists now agree that one is born with one’s sexual orientation.

Why would anyone choose to be homosexual? In the words of one of my gay parishioners, why would anyone choose to be called an abomination, or beaten and tied to a fence to die?  Why would anyone want to live their life in fear and secrecy, unable to tell even their closest friends, co-workers, and relatives that they have fallen in love and have formed a family?

When a couple comes to me wishing to be married – consenting adults who have fallen in love and want to make a public statement of their commitment and have it blessed — we sit down together and talk.  We talk about what the couple is looking for in a ceremony, and how they wish to honor their relationship before friends and family and their faith community.  But mostly we talk about the quality of their relationship, their struggles and their joys, what they love most about each other, what bugs them the most about each other, how they handle conflict, and money, and decision making in general, whether or not they want children and when, and what kind of a relationship they have with each other’s family of origin.

We discuss how a trusting, loving, and caring sexual relationship can deepen their level of intimacy.  But, as anyone in this room who is in, or has been in, a long term committed relationship knows, sharing sexual pleasure is the least of it.  Couples spend more time worrying about the mortgage and the bills, how to balance work and family, how to raise the kids in a responsible manner, how to find time to contribute to society and find meaning in life, how to decide who cooks and who cleans, who goes grocery shopping, and who takes out the trash.

I provide the same pre-ceremony counseling for same gender or opposite gender couples.  Their concerns are the same.  Their joys are the same.  Their lives are the same – except for one point.  Society does not recognize the same gender couple’s relationship.

When I work with dying people and their families, I meet people where they are, without judgement.  They want to explore the meaning of their lives, and make plans for the care of their property and their body after death.  These are deep conversations, and people have deep concerns.  Caring for a dying loved one is one of the greatest gifts we can give to one another.  Disposing of our loved one’s body after death and planning a memorial service are some of the most intimate things we can do for one another.  How can we, as a society, deny these rights to anyone…. And especially to someone who has tended their partner’s body and spirit at home through the final days and weeks of a terminal illness?

Marriage, as an institution, has changed over the years.  Once upon a time, it was only for the wealthy as a way to cement bonds of property and inheritance.  Once upon a time, people of different religions, different races, and different social classes were not allowed to marry.  Marriage has changed with the times.  Granting the right of civil union to same gender couples  – which is in no way marriage as it is not portable from state to state and does not bestow upon them any of the federal rights associated with marriage — would in no way degrade marriage as an institution; it would only enhance it.

Gay men and lesbians are in my congregation, they are my friends and family, they are my neighbors.  I have gained nothing but strength for my own marriage from them.  I see close at hand what they go through to create a home in a society that is against them.  I see them raise wonderful children, work hard in their communities, and participate fully in the life of their house of worship.

A loving and benevolent Divine essence walks with us.  We are called to be whole people, to look inside ourselves, and be true to who we are.  We all struggle with this from time to time, but gay men and lesbians struggle more.  They do not want to think they are deviants in society.  They do not want to listen to hate-filled language spoken by people who do not truly understand what it is like to be a gay man or lesbian in our society.

Homosexuals, like heterosexuals, want to be left alone to love their mate, to raise their children, to care for their home, to contribute to society, and to find a faith community that will nurture their deepest longings.

Our society has struggled, and continues to struggle, with many so-called moral issues – slavery, desegregation, interracial marriage, child labor, the death penalty, abortion rights, the rights of the disabled, and now, gay and lesbian rights.  Faith communities also struggle with these issues.  But we religious leaders expect our governmental leaders to seek equitable and just solutions to these issues not based solely on a particular faith’s point of view.  In Orleans County alone there are practicing Christians, Jews, Muslims, Hindus, and Buddhists as well as people of various native and earth-centered traditions.  The history of freedom of religion and the separation of church and state runs deep in Vermont.

Because we know that Americans and Vermonters are not of one faith, we ask you, our elected officials, to look deep into your hearts and do what is just and fair.  There are times when it is necessary for you to look beyond the popular vote – because other legislators before you had the courage to do that, we no longer have segregation separating the races, and women have the right to vote and be independent citizens apart from their husbands or fathers.

All couples have the right to have their commitment honored and respected by society.  The civil union bill takes the first step toward full equality.  I ask you to do all you can to ensure the rights of same gender couples to have the full benefits, protections, and responsibilities that heterosexual married couples enjoy.