The blog of Frederick Clarkson

Lessons from the Struggle for Marriage Equality in Massachusetts

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Thanks to the urgent efforts of the religious right, the anti-marriage equality amendment is on the ballot in California is narrowly ahead in recent polls. And we should expect a fierce battle to the finish. Longtime Religious Right leader Chuck Colson calls the California initiative “the armaggeddon of the culture war.” Maggie Gallagher, president of the National Organization for Marriage says “This is ground zero in a culture war that the California Supreme Court just declared on Christianity and every single faith.”

Meanwhile in Connecticut, a referendum held every 20 years as to whether a sate constitutional convention should be held, coincidentally is being held this year, and opponents of marriage equality are urging a “yes” vote in order to try to make it easier to change the constitution regarding marriage, and thereby overturn the decision of the state Supreme Court. The effort ggained momentum when the state’s Catholic Bishops urged a “yes” vote, making statewide news.

As these battles are being fought, there are lessons to be learned along the way — even as Beltway Insiders keep claiming, all evidence to the contrary not withstanding, that the culture wars are over or are fading, and that the religious right is dead, or in precipitous decline. These kinds of thought-stopping declarations tend to prevent us from having the kinds of conversations we actually need to be having about political reality.

While is not clear whether the CT constitutional convention measure will pass, it does enjoy the support of a number of groups such as the Connecticut Family Institute (the state political arm of Focus on the Family Action) as well as GOP Gov. Jodi Rell. It is also not clear that if it did pass, the convention would take up the issue of marriage equality. But no matter what happens, the issue promises to remain alive in CT politics for the forseeable future.

As it happens, I featured an essay about some of the lessons of the Massachusetts experience in Dispatches from the Religious Left: The Future of Faith and Politics in America. The essay is authored by Leo Maley, a longtime political, labor, and yes, community organizer. He currently chairs the Amherst, MA Democratic Town Committee.  Here are a few quotes from his piece:

The back-story of this historic civil and human rights victory is the role of over 1,000 clergy–and numerous laypersons–who, in publicly supporting marriage equality, powerfully reframed the same-sex marriage debate in a way that helped lead to this major progressive achievement. However, the historic Goodridge decision is not the achievement I am talking about. Instead, the victory to which religious progressives contributed so significantly was the dramatic showdown vote in the state legislature in 2006 that headed off a state-wide ballot question designed to undo Goodridge and thus write discrimination into the Massachusetts constitution. This success story should embolden and inspire progressive religious activists as a model for organizing on this issue over the long haul…
In June 2006, RCFM [the Religious Coalition for the Freedom to Marry] publicly confronted what it called the “bigotry espoused in the name of faith,” by releasing an open letter that charged the Catholic Church with “religious discrimination” for trying to deny legal recognition to marriages conducted by clergy of other faiths. (Keep in mind that Catholics comprise fully half of the population in Massachusetts, and over two-thirds of state legislature.) The letter declared that “By proclaiming homosexuality and same-sex unions to be universally immoral and worthy of second-class status under state law, you are sending a message that our faith communities are immoral. You are harming us and our families and your own faithful as well.”

RCFM also gathered thousands of signatures from pro-equality Catholics on a “Roman Catholic Statement Supporting Marriage Equality for Same-Sex Couples in Massachusetts” which emphasized the “danger of one religious tradition or doctrine dominating another,” and affirmed the constitutional principle of the separation of church and state. The Statement recalled that Roman Catholics were once denied civil rights, argued that Catholic social justice teachings called for respect, “not merely tolerance,” and reminded the public that “same-sex civil marriage does not in any way coerce any religious faith or tradition to change its beliefs or doctrine.” RCFM’s challenge to the Catholic Church’s anti-equality stance was critical. And the courage and integrity of the religious leaders who stood up for what they believed, and effectively organized on behalf of their convictions, made a crucial difference in preserving marriage equality in Massachusetts.

His essay ought to be of immediate use in states where marriage equality is an issue, and for the forseeable future. It is worth bearing in mind Colson also said (as reported by Church & State):

“This is where if we lose, it would be very hard to turn the ship right again,” said Colson, according to a report in Charisma, a leading Pentecostal magazine. “If we win, we might start rolling back the other side. This is a major, major struggle, and we should spare nothing in defining marriage the way every civilization has as the union of one man and one woman joined together as one flesh, as we believe in the Scripture in order to procreate.”

You can listen to Maley in a podcast of a recent radio interview with Francesca Rheannon of  Writer’s Voice. (Dispatches contributor Chip Berlet and I also appear on the program.)

One Response to 'Lessons from the Struggle for Marriage Equality in Massachusetts'

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  1. Today, the Religious Institute announced that 2200 ordained clergy have endorsed it’s Open Letter to Religious Leaders on Marriage Equality. See

    Rev. Debra Haffner

    20 Oct 08 at 7:28 pm

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