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Unitarian Universalists cheer California gay marriage ruling

UU legislative ministry’s amicus brief cited in Supreme Court’s decision authorizing same-sex marriages.
By Donald E. Skinner
5.19.08

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California gay marriage plaintiffs

Plaintiffs Stuart Gaffney, left, and his partner John Lewis, with Myra Beals and her partner Ida Matson, right, hold a California flag outside the court house in San Francisco on Thursday, May 15, after hearing the court decision that overturned a ban on gay marriage. (AP Photo/Tony Avelar)

Unitarian Universalists rejoiced when the California Supreme Court ruled Thursday that the state cannot bar same-sex couples from marrying. The court rejected as discriminatory a state law that restricted marriage to one man and one woman.

The 4-3 ruling means that same-sex couples will be able to obtain licenses to marry throughout California when the ruling becomes effective on June 16. Almost 4,000 same-sex couples obtained marriage licenses in San Francisco in 2004 when Mayor Gavin Newsom authorized them, before the state Supreme Court invalidated them. Many of those couples and the City of San Francisco sued the state. Those cases were combined, and that combined case is what the Supreme Court ruled on Thursday.

The ruling makes California the second state to permit same-sex marriage. Same-sex couples have been able to marry in Massachusetts since its highest court ruled in 2003 that a ban on same-sex marriage was unconstitutional.

The Unitarian Universalist Legislative Ministry of California (UULMCA) played a key role in Thursday’s decision by mobilizing religious organizations in support of equal marriage rights for same-sex couples.

The legislative ministry, supported by UU congregations across the state, organized a friend of the court brief, the Interfaith Amicus Brief, which was signed by more than 400 clergy and faith organizations. The Rev. Lindi Ramsden, executive director of the UULMCA, said the brief was cited twice in the court’s opinion. Many UU ministers and congregations signed on to the brief, in addition to other religious organizations including the Union for Reform Judaism, the General Synod of the United Church of Christ, and the California Council of Churches.

The brief presented a historical overview of the relationship between religious practice, civil law, and marriage. It argued that both human dignity and religious freedom are supported when loving same-sex couples are allowed to marry.

Ramsden said the legislative ministry “made it possible to utilize the talents and gifts of UUs all over the state. We’ve been building this organization to do something significant. In this case we were able to pull together a hugely diverse spectrum of religious beliefs and that made a tremendous difference in this case.”

Ramsden added, “It’s a wonderful and historic victory for fairness and love.” She said her most poignant moment Thursday came when she sat down to read the ruling. “The actual moment of reading it, figuring out what it said, and seeing that the justices understood basic dignity and respect for same-sex couples—I’m at a loss for words to describe it. It really hit me emotionally.”


Jamila Tharp of Eureka said she was “ecstatic.” A member of the Humboldt Unitarian Universalist Fellowship in Bayside, she and Michelle Hasting were married in Canada in 2006. For many years the couple has gone down to their local county clerk’s office on Valentine’s Day to apply for a marriage license and to bring awareness to the marriage equality issue. “Our clerk has just been teary-eyed that she cannot give us a license,” said Tharp. “She made us promise that as soon as marriage was legal we’d come back and allow her to say yes. We’re going to do that as soon as this decision becomes effective.”

David Jones and Don Williams, members of the First Unitarian Universalist Society of San Francisco, were among those who married at San Francisco City Hall in 2004 and who then had their marriage invalidated. Jones said Thursday, “This makes us feel included and whole.” Williams said, “This has been an emotional roller coaster for us, to be married and have it taken away. This time we have hope for something permanent.”

Eric Isaacson, an attorney who is a member of the Unitarian Universalist Church of San Diego, came up with the idea for the Interfaith Amicus Brief. “This makes me happy,” he said. “The important thing is that we made it clear that people of faith support marriage equality. Our brief was necessary to counter the religious right.” The next challenge to marriage equality in California will likely come in November. Opponents of same-sex marriage have gathered signatures for a ballot initiative in November that would amend the state constitution to block same-sex marriage. Twenty-seven states have such amendments.

“We’ll be needing all hands on deck until November,” said Ramsden. “We estimate it’s going to take $20 million to fight this, but we feel like we have a decent chance. Public opinion has moved substantially on this issue since Californians last voted on this in 2000.”


The Rev. William G. Sinkford, president of the Unitarian Universalist Association of Congregations, rejoiced in the court’s decision. He thanked the “brave justices for honoring the spirit of the California constitution and extending its protections to same-sex couples.” He added: “Decades ago, California led the nation in affirming the right of inter-racial couples to marry, and it is fitting that the state now joins Massachusetts as a leader in full marriage equality for gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender citizens.”

Sinkford also thanked the UU Legislative Ministry of California for “its tireless work on behalf of marriage equality.”

The Rev. John Millspaugh, minister at Tapestry, a Unitarian Universalist congregation in Mission Viejo, California, has actively promoted same-sex marriage rights. In 2004 he traveled from California to Washington, D.C., as part of a Marriage Equality Caravan. He and his congregation both signed the Interfaith Amicus Brief. When he and the Rev. Sarah Gibb Millspaugh married in 2006, they flew to Massachusetts for the ceremony because they didn’t feel comfortable marrying in California where so many others were denied that privilege.

He said he was heartened by the court decision. “The most important thing about this for me is knowing that the thousands of children across California who are being raised by gay and lesbian parents will now have the full and legal protection they deserve.”

Millspaugh added, “I hope this moment steels our determination on other social justice issues we’re working hard on. Often we don’t see immediate results. This proves it’s worth staying in the fight.”


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