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Of God, Love, and Marriage

Members of the Clergy Lobby Annapolis to Give Marriage Rights to Gay and Lesbian Marylanders

Frank Klein
GOING TO THE CHAPEL: Presbyterian Minister Andrew Foster connors was one of 50 Maryland religious leaders who spoke to state legislators in favor of gay marriage Jan. 24.

By Laura Laing | Posted 2/8/2006

The Rev. Andrew Foster Connors says he trusts the vows of Christian baptism that require believers to support one another in faith. And this conviction leads the minister of Brown Memorial Park Avenue Presbyterian Church in Bolton Hill to assert that gays and lesbians should have the right of legal marriage in Maryland and across the country.

“Through baptism, we are made brothers and sisters in faith,” regardless of sexual orientation, he says. “I feel a responsibility not to relinquish those baptism vows, even when it becomes uncomfortable or politically expedient to do so.”

This is a far cry from the overall religious chorus against same-sex marriage, but Connors is not alone. More than 250 Maryland religious leaders from a variety of faith traditions have signed a letter to legislators declaring their support of same-sex marriage. On Tuesday, Jan. 24, more than 50 clergy members gathered in Annapolis to lobby their legislators and distribute the letter.

“I am offended personally when I hear the ‘religious right’ use our sacred scriptures to discriminate against any people of God,” says the Rev. Gregg Knepp, minister of St. John’s Lutheran Church in Park Heights. Now he is lending his voice in the fight for same-sex marriage.

More than a year after the religious right and gay marriage were given credit for a second term for George W. Bush, progressive religious leaders are coming out of the closet.

This is none too late in the eyes of those who support same-sex marriage. On Jan. 20, Baltimore City Circuit Court Judge Brooke Murdock announced her ruling on Deane and Polyak vs. Conaway, a court case that struck down a state ban on same-sex marriage. The next day, Annapolis was abuzz with rhetoric condemning the ruling and calls for a state constitutional amendment that would maintain marriage as an institution between one man and one woman.

Democrats expressed concern that the ruling would cause a backlash so strong that conservative voters would flock to the polls in November to vote in favor of the amendment. According to The Sun and other news outlets, Senate President Thomas “Mike” Miller accused plaintiffs in the case of forum shopping—choosing the court that would give them the most favorable decision. “The far left is playing into the hands of the far right,” he told The Sun. “They’re idiots.”

On Feb. 2, the Maryland House Judiciary Committee unanimously voted against HB 48, a bill that would send the proposed amendment to a voters’ referendum in November. But Gov. Robert Ehrlich favors a public vote on the issue, and the next day Republicans used a rare procedural movement to pull the bill from committee and bring it to the House floor for full debate. The House voted 78-61 to reject continued debate. The Senate is now considering its own version of the amendment.

Many clergy who support same-sex marriage in Maryland, however, say it should not be up to voters to decide whether it should be legal to discriminate against gay and lesbian individuals. They say this is a civil-rights issue, one that should be fought in the courts rather than at the ballot box.

“The [state] constitution should never be used to discriminate but rather should be used to promote civil rights to everyone,” Knepp says. “It’s both a constitutional issue, as well as a religious one. For me, this is a moral issue to promote the rights and dignity of all people.”

The prospect of approving an amendment to make gay marriage illegal is particularly galling to Connors.

“What right do we have to barter the rights of a minority group in the state?” he asks.

“Committed love in a committed relationship is a sacred phenomenon,” says Senior Rabbi Rex Perlmeter of the Baltimore Hebrew Congregation, which is part of the Reform Movement of Judaism. Reform Judaism is on record in support of gay civil marriage, Perlmeter says.

Generally speaking, there have been a few usual suspects in the religious world that speak out in support of gay marriage: Unitarian-Universalists, Unity churches, and Reform Judaism members, for example. But the debate in Maryland now has clergy from other more conservative denominations blazing trails within their own faith traditions as well.

“Officially, the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America does not recognize gay and lesbian relationships,” Knepp says of his denomination. “Their policy toward gay clergy is that they are expected to remain celibate. I disagree with that policy.”

Three years ago, St. John’s Lutheran made the decision to be intentionally open and welcoming to all people—including gays and lesbians.

“I see it as a prophetic issue and am seeking to push the church to take a new direction,” Knepp says.

Other groups, such as the Sisters of Loretto, a Roman Catholic order of nuns, have worked for the civil rights of gays and lesbians for much longer. The Sisters of Loretto have been doing so since the 1980s, and Sister Jeannine Gramick, a member of the order living in the Washington suburbs of Maryland, has been at the forefront of the same-sex marriage debate.

“It is wrong not to recognize same-sex marriage,” she says. “And the reason it is morally wrong is because it is discriminatory. We have to learn to separate civil rights from theological judgments.”

For many of the clergy who support the right of gays and lesbians to marry, the argument comes down to the separation between church and state.

“The government shouldn’t try to tamper with religion and vice versa,” Connors says. “I think, as a nation, we’re to be commended for that.”

And Connors says that gays and lesbians should not have to compromise on the word marriage: Civil unions, which are currently only available in the U.S. to same-sex couples in Vermont and Connecticut, create a separate-but-unequal institution for some individuals. He notes that marriage confers more than 1,000 federal rights, protections, and responsibilities, none of which are available to those entering into civil unions.

“From my own perspective, we’ve tried separate-but-equal institutions before,” Connors says. “If they are indeed equal, why call them something else?”

Though he supports gay marriage, Connors says, he says it’s also important to affirm other religious organizations’ rights to a different perspective on the issue. He points out that should gay marriage rights be made legal in Maryland, it would not force opposing religious groups to change their perspective on the matter.

“I certainly support all those religious groups” that believe same-sex marriage is immoral, he says. “This court case [Deane and Polyak vs. Conaway] would not affect that whatsoever. I would not want any religious group to impose its own understanding of morality or marriage on the rest of the country.”

That distinction seems to be lost on many political and religious leaders, the Rev. Anthony McCarthy of the Unity Fellowship in Baltimore says. A marriage license confers no religious sanction, he pointed out at a press conference that preceded the clergy lobby day last month. “Clergy will always be able to make decisions within their faith.”

During the same press conference, the Rev. John Deckenback, conference minister of the Central Atlantic Conference of United Church of Christ based in Baltimore, spoke directly to religious leaders.

“We are the ones who are perpetuating the lies,” he said. “Marriage itself has been evolving for centuries.”

Perlmeter notes that conservative religious groups have been more successful in getting their point across to the general public. Therefore, he feels that the public debate over gay marriage is crucial right now, especially when it comes to showing people that it’s not just secular individuals who support it.

“We have to make it a discussion,” he says. “It can’t merely be an assertion of a point of view. . . . The stronger and true voice is the voice of love. So, we have to keep talking.”

Dan Furmansky, executive director of Equality Maryland, the advocacy group that has been lobbying in Annapolis for gay marriage, says the clergy have been an important element in the gay-rights movement. However, he says, many people do not recognize that.

“The thing that angers me the most is the presumption from the other side that they are moral and we are not,” he says. “It’s important to counter the notion that [the religious right] holds the corner on morality.”

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