Until All Are Equal: Refusing to Sign Marriage Licenses

A sermon delivered by Rev.  Josh Pawelek, Unitarian Universalist Society, East Manchester, CT on November 2, 2003

When I initially planned to preach on my decision to stop signing marriage licenses, I certainly didn’t imagine this would be the week the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court would hand down its decision in Goodridge vs.  Department of Public Health on whether or not the state’s ban on issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couples is consistent with its constitution’s various commitments to equality.  So thanks a lot to the MA Supreme Judicial Court for stealing my thunder.  It almost feels inconsequential to speak about not signing marriage licenses here when such a momentous event has taken place up north.

It was momentous.  Tuesday morning at 10:00 I was walking past a TV monitor at a bank branch in our local grocery store, and there it was on CNN: “Massachusetts High Court Overturns Ban on Gay Marriage.”  Wait, what?  I had to read it twice to make sure I was reading correctly.  You don’t often see those words in that order.  In fact, no one has ever seen those exact words in that exact order.  As Chief Justice Marshall put it, “we are mindful that our decision marks a change in the history of our marriage law.”  This, for me, and for so many others who’ve worked tirelessly — and who will continue to work tirelessly — for full civil rights for gays and lesbians, was a sweet and precious moment in history, a moment of justice.  “Yes!” I said out loud.  Make no mistake:  I have a very distinct bias and much emotional investment when it comes to gay and lesbian civil rights.  The tellers and their customers all turned to look at me.  Some of them turned to look at the monitor.  None of them joined in my excitement.  Longing for someone to share this moment with, I looked at my baby boy in the shopping cart, put my arms in the air, and said “Yaaaaayyyy!” Poor kid.  Oblivious to everything except my excitement, he put his arms in the air and screamed “Yaayyyyy!”

What a relief this must be for the plaintiffs.  They’ve been wrapped up in this for a few years now.  They experienced the agony of losing the case in the first round, but were able to appeal to the Supreme Court.  They were first told that the decision would be handed down in early July.  They’ve been waiting, on pins and needles I’m sure, for the last five months, their lives on hold, with no idea how the decision would go.  I had the great honor of sitting on a panel at the Unitarian Universalist General Assembly this past June with the lead plaintiff, Hillary Goodridge.  We were each speaking about the status of the gay marriage movement in our various states.  I remember that she had to leave the panel early because she was having her picture taken for Newsweek.  She is funny and warm and humble, and not the person whose name and life you’d expect to find at the center of a national legal and cultural struggle.  But there she is.  “Yaaaaayyyy!”

I want to emphasize that the high court’s decision does not mean that gay marriages can begin taking place in Massachusetts.  The court could’ve gone that far, but it didn’t.  Similar to Vermont, the court told the legislature to take care of it, and gave them 180 days in which to do so.  This decision is more radical than the Vermont court’s decision because the Massachusetts court did not give the legislature the option to create a civil union law.  This MA legislature must amend the marriage laws.  This will be full gay marriage, no second class citizenship.  It is possible that a constitutional amendment will be put forth in Massachusetts to declare that marriage is only between a man and a woman, but this would take a couple of years, and I believe it will be much harder to take equality away once it has been established.  Needless to say, it will be very exciting to witness as events unfold.

We don’t have anything like this in our state — at least not yet.  So I want to tell you about my decision to stop signing marriage licenses, especially because it impacts this congregation.

About a year ago I heard the Rev.  Fred Small — a well-known folk-singer and now UU minister in Littleton, MA — talk about his decision to stop signing marriage licenses.  I confess I was unimpressed.  I was even a bit arrogant about it.  “What good will that do?”  I asked.  It won’t influence a court.  It is unlikely to influence a legislator, unless they come to you to get married.  It will only hurt the people in your congregation who need you to marry them.  And let’s face it, it’s not like the anti-gay lobby and the anti-gay politicians will be quaking in their boots when they hear that a UU minister is refusing to sign marriage licenses!  You won’t hear any of them saying, “Wow, I didn’t see that coming!”  It’s not an action that exerts a lot of political pressure.  Part of the reason I felt this way is because I had been involved in Love Makes a Family, a grassroots coalition working for  marriage equality in Connecticut.  I had been watching their leaders and their lobbyists make strategic decisions about how to exert political pressure.  I had been learning quite a bit from them about how to build an effective movement, about how to win.  They won domestic partnership benefits for state employees.  They won co-parent adoption.  I was very impressed.  They hadn’t identified the refusal to sign marriage licenses as an effective strategy to advance the legislative battle in our state.  In fact, they said, it might even turn off some of the clergy from more conservative denominations who had agreed to support us at great risk to their careers.

Through the course of the year, my thinking began to change.  First, I became aware of gay and lesbian colleagues who were refusing to sign licenses, not because they were trying to make a statement about justice.  Rather, they were refusing to sign because it was too painful and insulting to perform weddings for heterosexual couples and sign the licenses when they themselves couldn’t legally be married.  Pain and insult experienced by colleagues and friends — I was hearing something I suppose I knew was there all along, but I hadn’t listened deeply until this moment.

My position began to change even more when I began reflecting on this strange United States custom by which states authorize clergy to sign marriage licenses, and in a quite blatant way, blur the lines between church and state.  This is very important:  there are two kinds of marriage, legal and religious.  Legal marriage is what enables a couple to obtain what I call the civil rights of marriage.  There are 588 rights afforded by our state to married heterosexual couples.  Only five of the state rights are offered to same-sex couples if they fill out special paperwork.  That, too, was a battle that Love Makes a Family won during the spring 2002 legislative session.  There are over 1,100 rights afforded by the federal government to married heterosexual couples.  Very few of these rights can be obtained easily and without great legal expense by same-sex couples, yet their needs in terms of inheritance, raising children, sharing property, hospital visits, end of life issues, health benefits, family discounts, family tax credits, and on and on and on, are exactly the same.  Long-term committed partners of gays and lesbians who died in the 9/11 terrorist attacks have not been allowed to claim any money from the vast collections that were taken up in the wake of the tragedy and are now managed through the federal government.  Yet, heterosexual partners of 9/11 victims who were married just days before the attacks have been able to receive money.

Why clergy are allowed to sign marriage licenses on behalf of the state I have no idea.  It may have just been a matter of convenience, or a hold-over from the days of Puritan theocracy in old New England.  It doesn’t tend to work that way in most European countries where, when a couple wants to get married legally, they go to the appropriate governmental office and obtain a marriage license.  Then, if they want the second kind of marriage, a religious marriage, they go to the church or the synagogue, or the mosque, and the marriage rite (R-I-T-E) takes place.  Religious marriage seals the union in the eyes of God or Yahweh or Allah or the Sacred or the Most Holy or the Spirit of the Life.  It has nothing to do with the state.  It has nothing to do with the civil rights (R-I-G-H-T) of marriage.

Because religious and legal marriage are combined in the US, many people have difficulty understanding that the same-sex marriage movement is only about legal marriage.  It has no interest in asking any religious body to change its practices when it comes to religious marriage.  And yet, so many of the arguments against gay marriage that you hear at the legislature or in testimonies in the courts are religious in nature.  “Because the Bible says so! Because it’s an abomination, see Leviticus, see Paul.”  When you take the religious argument away, there really is no argument against gay marriage.  If you read the dissenting opinions of the Massachusetts judges, you see them really struggling to say why gay marriage is wrong, but they know they can’t base it on religious grounds, so they make vague statements about not having enough data, about letting the people decide, about the extent of the court’s authority, about historical norms.

These reflections helped me to see even further that it makes sense to refuse to sign marriage licenses.  Take the clergy out of legal marriage and let us just focus on religious marriage.  I think this would really help opponents of gay marriage to understand that this is about equality and civil rights; it is not an attack on religion.  I will certainly continue to perform wedding ceremonies for both same-sex and opposite-sex couples.  And I will sign the religious certificate of marriage.  But until we have marriage equality in Connecticut, I will not sign the legal certificate.   I will not participate in a form of state-sanctioned discrimination.

The final event that changed my mind about this issue happened over the summer, when Pat Anderson and Deb Walker came to me and asked me to perform their wedding, which will take place here on December 17th (see the November newsletter for details).  Deb and Pat will be my first wedding as your parish minister.  I was honored.  And it dawned on me:  If I sign marriage licenses for straight couples, but not for gay and lesbian couples, then I really am allowing our congregation to perpetuate second class membership for gays and lesbians.  That is, the minister provides one package of services for one group, and another package of services for another group.  My conscience can no longer sanction this.  The pain and insult have lodged too deeply in my heart.

It’s not that I don’t want heterosexual couples to receive the benefits provided by legal marriage.  I do.  By all means, go to a justice of the peace and get your license signed.  But also recognize the immense privilege that you receive as a married heterosexual person — or even as a divorced heterosexual person, since some of those civil rights of marriage enable a clear and unambiguous legal termination of a relationship.  Recognize the discrimination.  Recognize the mis-use and abuse of power.  Recognize the vast denial of civil rights to one segment of the population.  Remember that marriage laws used to turn women into property, and they were changed by people who cared about justice.  Remember that marriage laws used to prevent interracial marriage, and they were changed by people who cared about justice.  So much for historical norms!  Recognize, remember, and then join in the struggle in whatever way possible to make sure that all citizens of every state receive equal treatment under the law.

I told our Policy Board in September that I had decided to no longer sign marriage licenses.  They supported me, but also asked that I not make this statement in public until I had had an opportunity to preach about it to you first.  This I could do.  This felt very much like shared ministry.  From this day forward, I will say to any couple who asks me to perform their wedding, “Yes, however I will not sign the license issued by the state.”

One of the assumptions Unitarian Universalists embrace is the notion that revelation is not sealed, but open and continuous.  Truth is not sealed, but open and continuous.  We UUs tend to understand from a spiritual perspective the way in which values like freedom and equality are applied historically in limited ways, and we tend to notice, from a spiritual perspective, that this limited application breeds injustices, that there is always room to expand the application, always room to let more people in, always room to tweak and improve on democracy, civil rights, civil liberties.  In religious traditions where revelation is sealed — delivered once to a great teacher or prophet — and written down in unchanging, unerring language, it is difficult to embrace an expansion of the human family; it is difficult to imagine a wider application of values such as freedom and equality.  Such traditions always try to fit the world into a box.  Anything or anyone who doesn’t fit is deemed other, depraved, flawed, evil, damned.

Unitarian Universalists approach things differently.  We have a box, to be sure, but we are much more willing to fit our box to the world.  It was as late as the 1980s that Unitarian Universalist congregations were still struggling with how to welcome, embrace, and empower gays, lesbians, bisexuals, and transgender people, let alone work for their civil rights.  But the genius of a liberal faith is that it stays open to new possibilities.  It is in a position to hear the moanings, the rumblings, and the protests of those who find themselves outside the box, outside equality, outside democracy.  We can hear because we believe that revelation and truth are not sealed.

Although this decision to refuse to sign marriage licenses has been my decision to make as an ordained minister, it is my fondest hope that we understand it as our collective protest of injustice; as our collective statement, along with other Unitarian Universalists and other liberal religious and non-religious people in Connecticut, that gays and lesbians are full members of the human family, that they deserve the same rights and benefits afforded to heterosexual people, and that this struggle, like all justice struggles, will be won by those who know that new truths emerge, new possibilities arise, new messages are available, revelation and truth are not sealed.

Amen.  Blessed Be.

Josh Pawelek

The Rev. Josh Pawelek has served as minister of the Unitarian Universalist Society: East in Manchester, CT since 2003. During that time he has served as president of the Greater Hartford Interfaith Coalition for Equity and Justice, chair of Connecticut Clergy for Marriage Equality. He has been a member of the UUMA Board of Trustees, the UUMA Committee for Antiracism, Anti-Oppression and Multiculturalism, and the UUMA's Accessibility Task Force. He lives in Glastonbury, CT with his wife and two sons. His sermon, "Until All Are Equal," won the 2004 Skinner Sermon Award.