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UUs rally for marriage equality in four states

Ballot questions in Maine, Maryland, Minnesota, and Washington draw UU support, advocacy.
By Donald E. Skinner And Michelle Bates Deakin
10.22.12

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Minn. UUs track conversations about marriage equality (Scott Strehlow)

Unitarian Universalists at White Bear UU Church, in Mahtomedi, Minn., have added a link to a paper chain each time they have a conversation with a person about marriage equality. The chain has more than 1,200 links. (Scott Strehlow)

Every time—32 to be exact—that voters in the United States have been asked to vote on same-sex marriage they have turned it down. But there’s a good chance that string will be broken November 6.

Three states—Maine, Maryland, and Washington—have measures on the ballot that would authorize same-sex marriage. In all three, polling is close. These state legislatures have all approved same-sex marriage, but because opponents then called for referendums, the issue has to pass a statewide vote.

In a fourth state—Minnesota—marriage equality advocates are working to get out a “No” vote next month on a legislative measure that was passed to prevent same-sex marriage.

In all four states Unitarian Universalists are deeply engaged, hoping for outcomes that favor same-sex marriage. This is a fight that has some history to it. Marriage equality advocates in Maryland, for example, have been trying for at least seven years to win the right to marry.

Maryland

The Maryland legislature last winter approved a same-sex measure and the governor signed it. It was set to take effect next January 1, but opponents gathered enough signatures to force a referendum. Now all eyes are on November 6 when Question 6 will be decided.

“We’re cautiously optimistic we’re going to approve marriage at the ballot box,” said the Rev. Lisa Ward, pastor of the UU Fellowship of Harford County, in Churchville, Md., and co-chair of the Marriage Equality Task Force of UU Legislative Ministry-Maryland.

She said polls show slightly more than half of voters favor the measure. “It’s a matter now of getting folks out to vote. And confronting an onslaught of anti-ads in this last month. The ads are about fear—how same-sex marriage will harm children, that it will destroy the foundation of society, and that civil unions should be good enough. We’re countering that by lifting up a religious voice for equality, fairness, and dignity.”

She said the marriage issue in Maryland has evolved. “Seven years ago legislators were trying to change the constitution to prevent same-sex marriage. Then for a couple of years we got a positive bill out of either the House or the Senate, but not both. Finally this year one passed both. A lot of organizations have come on board now. It doesn’t feel as much like just a few of us doing this work anymore. We’re very hopeful about next month.”

Washington

In Washington State, the legislature approved same-sex marriage early this year, and Governor Chris Gregoire signed it into law. It was blocked immediately when opponents gathered enough signatures to require a referendum on the November ballot.

The Rev. Carol McKinley, a UU community minister, is coordinator of Washington State UU Voices for Justice, a state social justice network of congregations. She said that polling shows that 55 percent of residents approve of marriage equality. “There’s a lot of positive reaction to our campaign. We’re very optimistic. Washingtonians are increasingly comfortable with marriage for all. In our campaign we say that ‘We are expanding the realm of love.’”

She said members of UU congregations, which are part of a larger advocacy network, have been phone banking and going door to door for Referendum 74. “This campaign has been the major focus for many of us for months. This is something we’re deeply committed to.”

Maine

In Maine, voters will consider Question 1, which asks, “Do you want to allow the State of Maine to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples?” If it passes, Question 1 will overturn a 2009 ballot measure that banned same-sex marriage in that state.

The Rev. Sue Gabrielson is working two jobs as Election Day nears. She serves as the half-time minister of the Sanford, Maine, UU Church. And she is faith director of the Mainers United for Marriage campaign, organizing congregations and people of faith around the state to support marriage equality.

Gabrielson said that not only are UUs on the forefront of fighting for the ballot initiative, but they were also instrumental in having the measure on the ballot in the first place.

Mainers United for Marriage is headquartered in Portland, and it also has branch offices around the state, including in UU churches in Sanford and Kennebunk.

“We have almost unanimous support from the UU ministers in Maine, and almost 100 percent support of the churches,” said Gabrielson. Around the state, churches have been hosting actions weekly. Each week, the UU Church of Waterville, First Universalist Church of Yarmouth, and the Allen Avenue UU Church of Portland all host either a phone bank or canvassing efforts. The UU Church of Augusta and First Parish in Portland are both planning interfaith worship services the weekend before the election.

The Ferry Beach Camp and Conference Center in Saco has been opening up its dormitories to UUs coming in from out of state to work on the campaign. “We are grateful to be able to help and to address social justice issues with our resources here at Ferry Beach,” said Cathy Stackpole, Ferry Beach executive director.

A large focus of the Maine campaign has been on teaching individuals to talk to friends and family members who are undecided. “We’ve done trainings in almost all the churches to empower people to have one-on-one conversations,” Gabrielson said.

That campaign has also trained people to canvass people who are undecided or have expressed reservations about any number of issues, including faith-based reservations. “We call and say, ‘We know you had some concerns about religious liberty, and we wondered how you’re feeling now,” Gabrielson said. “We’re trying to inoculate against the opposition’s message.”

Gabrielson is cautiously optimistic that a majority of Mainers will vote for marriage equality. However, proponents are nervous, because they also believed they would win in 2009, and they narrowly lost. A big difference this time around is the work within faith communities.

“From the very beginning, we have stood up and said this is a religious issue,” Gabrielson said. “This is about love and inclusivity and non-judgment. For the opposition, it’s hard to argue with our goals or the message of standing on the side of love.”

Minnesota

In Minnesota, UUs are working to defeat a proposed constitutional amendment that would exclude same-sex couples from marriage. Laura Smidzik, a ministerial intern at First Universalist Church of Minneapolis, said the polling is close. “We’re probably down a couple of points, but it’s not deep polling, and we’re way inside the margin of error.” The key, she said, will be voters in suburban and rural areas. To reach them, advocates of same-sex marriage are encouraging people to have one-on-one conversations with friends, family, and coworkers, telling personal stories rather than engaging in a debate.

Ralph Wyman, director of the Minnesota UU Social Justice Alliance, which is playing a major role in coordinating efforts to reject the amendment, added, “Debates don’t change hearts. You do that by having openhearted conversations and helping people find a new connection to the issue.”

Smidzik said that approach can be hard for UUs. “We’re very passionate about marriage as a right. So for this election we’re working hard on getting our people out of their heads and into their hearts.”

Because that approach brings up more emotion, the Minnesota campaign has taken an extra step to make sure its UU volunteers are cared for as they hold heartfelt conversations with people who may disagree with them. The Fund for UU Social Responsibility funded a special Standing on the Side of Love (SSL)—Minnesota team to watch over these volunteers. That effort included holding an SSL worship service, simulcast around the state, as the work was gearing up this fall.

In addition, SSL-Minnesota has a Facebook page with a daily poem or meditation. Volunteers are also encouraged to post short videos about their conversations with others. “The SSL part is not about winning or losing, but about holding people,” said Smidzik.

At White Bear UU Church in Mahtomedi, Minn., around 300 friends and members signed up to help in the campaign, said Jane Bacon, a member of the congregation and state co-chair for the UU volunteer effort. The congregation found its own way to recognize the hard work that people are doing. For every conversation that someone holds about marriage equality a ring is added to a paper chain. She estimated the chain has around 1,200 links. It drapes across the fellowship hall.

White Bear’s ministers, the Rev. Victoria Safford and the Rev. Luke Stevens-Royer, have talked with parents about how to talk to children about the election and are presenting programs on “staying balanced” through the election. On election night there will be a watch party at church, “not focused on the outcome, but just so we can be with each other,” said Bacon. “We know there is enough in Unitarian Universalism to sustain us through whatever happens.”


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