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New York UUs celebrate marriage equality

Interfaith efforts help sway legislature to make New York sixth state to allow same-sex marriage.
By Donald E. Skinner
8.1.11

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The Rev. Julie Taylor and the Rev. Laurel Koepf

The Rev. Julie Taylor and the Rev. Laurel Koepf were married last week at Fourth Universalist Society in New York. (Jayme L. Aronson)

The Rev. Julie Taylor and the Rev. Laurel Koepf got married two years ago at Fourth Universalist Society in New York City. It was a ceremony that was deeply meaningful, but without legal standing in the state of New York.

Thursday they got married again and this time they got the legal part. On July 24, New York became the sixth state, plus the District of Columbia, to legalize same-gender marriage.

Unitarian Universalist congregations in New York report that the first few days of the new law have been relatively quiet. Members and ministers of Fourth Universalist spent several days down at the city clerk’s office handing out flyers about the church to couples standing in line for marriage licenses.

“We had a great response,” said Taylor. “We invited them up to get married or just to visit. Several people said they were happy to learn that we were in the neighborhood. The response was overwhelmingly positive.”

The society sponsored an “I Do!” “Me, Too!” Wedding Week for the first week after weddings were legal.

Taylor preached on July 24, the day of legalization, noting that this occasion is a celebration, but it’s also a reminder there is more to do. “Until all marriages are recognized everywhere, until the federal Defense of Marriage Act is repealed, as long as different states have different laws around marriage, we have work to do. So, this is great—and it’s not over.”

Taylor, a community minister at Fourth Universalist, and Koepf, a United Church of Christ minister who has been working at Fourth Universalist, were married by a friend from seminary days, the Rev. Michelle Nickens. Taylor is also a member of the UU Trauma Response Ministry.

Legalization efforts in New York took several years. The State Assembly approved a same-sex measure in 2007, 2009, and 2011. The Senate rejected it in 2009, but approved it June 24 when several Republican senators joined Democrats for a 33-29 vote. Gov. Andrew Cuomo had made same-sex marriage one of the priorities of his term in office.

UU congregations across the rest of the state were also preparing to welcome same-gender couples this past week. The Rev. Dr. Michael Tino of the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Northern Westchester in Mt. Kisco, expects to conduct several same-gender unions later this year. He and his partner, Eric Dyer, became engaged within minutes of the Senate vote and plan to marry in 2012.

Tino said his congregation has been involved with marriage equality for many years. On the Sunday before the Senate voted it hosted one of seven interfaith marriage rallies that were held across the state.

“Voices of faith were really important in this state on this issue,” he noted. “We need to remember that our voices do make a difference. Politicians pay attention to religious groups that favor equality. What we do as Unitarian Universalists is noticed.”

It helps, he added, to work with religious partners. “We need to cultivate our allies. Sometimes we think we’re the only ones. Here in Westchester County we had Jewish, Episcopal, and other partners. There were Methodist clergy who supported marriage equality even with the knowledge they could be brought up on charges.”

At the UUA General Assembly in Charlotte, N.C., in June, Tino introduced a responsive resolution to celebrate New York State’s approval of marriage equality and the role that Unitarian Universalist congregations played in that campaign. It also calls on congregations to continue to advocate for equality. The resolution was overwhelmingly approved by delegates.

In Buffalo, the Rev. Joel Miller of the Unitarian Universalist Church of Buffalo had no wedding ceremonies scheduled immediately. For him, the occasion was an opportunity to reflect on the long journey to this point.

“I remember marching for the first time in 2001 in our local pride parade and being probably the lone ministerial presence. Then within a couple years other churches became involved. Some of them had some pretty hard fights over marriage. We went from being the lone congregation to one of a handful, then one of a dozen. The parade became so big they had to change the route.”

Miller said he has performed many same-sex ceremonies, and he has always encouraged participants to call them weddings. “If we’re going to be a family and take ourselves seriously, let’s call it marriage.” He said he once had a discussion with a district attorney about whether he could be arrested for using that terminology. “He said there were too many real problems out there he had to deal with.”

While marriage equality has been a relatively easy sell in New York City, it’s been a long road to that goal in other areas of the state. “This congregation has been committed to being welcoming and to marriage equality,” said Miller. “The work that members did for almost 20 years was the basis for a lot of personal growth for them. Friendships are deeper and there is a deeper experience of what it means to be UU.”

He said that support for marriage equality can mean more coming from places like Buffalo, which is more socially and politically conservative. “Being a religious voice here in support of marriage equality meant that we were heard. It was an important thing to do.”

Miller said it’s been frustrating to see the state block marriage rights. “To see that and just keep working, there have been benefits for staying with the struggle even when the goal was so far out.”

He said he believes state senators, especially Republican ones, finally realized that the state’s demographics were not in their favor and they should support this issue if they were to remain relevant.

UU congregations have had an important role in changing opinion in the state, Miller said. “When I did weddings in the early years, I’d have a talk with family members at the rehearsal and help some of them work through their discomfort if there was any. Then when couples got married and had been to a couple of Thanksgivings, their relatives became some of the strongest allies of same-sex marriage.”

Miller believes that it’s better to do the long, slow work to achieve marriage equality rather than have it dictated by courts. “That preempts a more thorough process and conversations that can be important. Don’t preempt the process. Talk with neighbors. Do the religious ceremonies again and again. Do them in public and involve as many people as possible including those who find it uncomfortable. It takes time for people to realize that LGBT families are regular families.

“Marriage equality is about more than marriage equality,” Miller said. “It’s moving the world to a place of blessing where justice is the norm rather than the exception. Where the web of life is this rich amazing experience rather than something that’s hoarded in a selfish way.”

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