This November, Twin Cities Meeting in St. Paul, Minnesota, approved a minute stating that our meeting will no longer perform the legal paperwork for marriages until we can legalize all of the marriages under our care. The decision was not an easy one, and our meeting grappled with it for some time.
In 1986, we first testified as a meeting to our understanding that God intends same-gender couples to enjoy lifelong committed relationships. We declared our intention to have those marriages under the meeting’s care on the same basis that we do for different gender couples. Since that time, we have taken at least seven such marriages under our care. Today, same-gender couples and their families are an integral part of the fabric of our meeting and participate fully in our common life together.
Although the meeting had been supportive of same-gender marriages, it was still participating in the discrimination that the current law requires. During the last few years, individual members voiced discomfort about this issue, and in the summer of 2009, a small group met and decided to present the option of discontinuing the legal function of weddings within the meeting. The meeting went through the following stages over a period of about four months:
Ministry and Counsel—The idea was presented to the Committee for Ministry and Counsel, which, after discussion, found that it was unable to come to agreement about the issue. The committee was supportive of the law changing, but not all agreed about having the meeting stop legal proceedings for marriages.
Clerk Appoints Committee—The issue was taken to the meeting clerk, who appointed a special committee of interested persons to take up the issue. The Marriage Equality Committee, made up of four individuals, met and planned a schedule for presenting the topic to the meeting as a whole.
Information flyer—An information flyer was written and made available for people to pick up before and after meeting for worship. It was also put on the website for people to review. The flyer briefly discussed the proposal and the plan for all members and attenders to have time for input. It also included information about other local congregations who had taken the same steps.
Meeting for Business—The proposal was presented at the next meeting for business. It was described briefly, and Friends were encouraged to ask questions. There was a mix of reactions at this session; mostly supportive, but several strong voices expressed concern about making the change. The concern about "losing" the privilege of performing legal marriages was prominent, as was the concern that this was a "negative" response to solving a problem.
Adult Forum—The next step was to have the topic presented and discussed in depth at an Adult Forum (a regular time for members to gather to hear and discuss topics on Sunday mornings). This was a time for formal presentation as well as a period of worship sharing. There were many voices of those who had been affected by the current law. There was still a mix of opinions, but more were supportive at this gathering than previously.
Creating the Minute—The Marriage Equality Committee worked on creating a minute to present to the meeting. The committee decided to propose the minute as a three-year trial, with emphasis on continued support for those couples who wanted to have their marriages legalized in the courts.
Information—At the next meeting for business, there was no presentation; written information about the proposal was available.
Meeting for Business—At the next meeting for business, a minute was approved to stop all legal marriage proceedings for three years.
Point 6 Committee (so named for the sixth point of the meeting’s minute, which called for work with the larger community) —A committee was formed to work on outreach and networking with other meetings and congregations. The charge of this committee is "to seek opportunities to bear witness outwardly until equal treatment under the law exists for all couples."
On a personal note, the process of seeing this as a justice issue has been enlightening and a little alarming. Looking at my own reactions and changing perspective, I can better understand how systemic injustice can be accepted at times by otherwise "compassionate" people. I saw it in myself, as well as in many other Friends in the meeting. I have always been accepting of same-gender couples, but it didn’t concern me much that they were not allowed to marry under the law. They never had done so before, right? It had always been this way, right? I could live with it as it was. I knew a few couples who were married under the care of our meeting, but the legal aspect didn’t seem to be much of an issue for me.
When some states began to pass laws legalizing same-gender marriages, it started to catch my attention a bit. Not much, but a little. When powerful campaigns were waged to try to overturn these laws, it was hard to ignore. When the law was overturned in California, it hit me squarely—a civil right had been given to people and then taken away. Here were people not being allowed a civil standing that everyone else in the country was allowed.
I have been pointedly reminded that the injustice of marriage inequality is not on the same level as the issue of slavery or the struggles for African American civil rights in the 1950s and ’60s. Accepting that, I believe there are some significant parallels that are important to recognize. First, there is the obvious point that in our current society some people (same-sex couples) are not allowed a legal status (marriage) that everyone else is allowed. This is on the same level as "whites only" water fountains, schools and seats on the bus. We have "straight couples only" marriage in today’s United States.
Secondly, and eerily, is our acceptance of the injustice—acceptance of inequality by individuals who are otherwise fair and empathetic people. I believe that much of what happened to Quakers and others in the18th century and in the mid-1900s was that these injustices were the "normal" of their lives, what they had always known, and what society had always tolerated. John Woolman, speaking in "Some Considerations on the Keeping of Negroes," said in 1756:
Circumstances tend to make people less apt to examine the practice so closely as they would if such a thing had not been, but was now proposed to be entered upon, . . . When that which is inconsistent with perfect equity hath the law or countenance of the great in its favor, though the tendency thereof be quite contrary to the true happiness of mankind . . . yet as these ill effects are not generally perceived, they who labor to dissuade from such things which people believe accord with their interest have many difficulties to encounter."
Woolman, of course, "labored to dissuade" people from buying, selling, and keeping slaves, which was an accepted, long-standing, and very profitable practice. It can be assumed that most early Quakers were caring and considerate of those who were oppressed by the system, but most of those same Quakers didn’t think to challenge the system. It took many years and the prodding of particular individuals to help bring about a different perception of what was acceptable. Similarly, in the 1950s and ’60s well-meaning whites were kind to African Americans, but most did not challenge the ingrained system that they were used to. Looking back, it seems incomprehensible that people accepted such practices, until we look at our own slow realizations of injustices that are currently happening here in our own country, as well as those paid for with our taxes in many parts of the world.
We at Twin Cities Meeting are pleased to be reaching out to other Friends meetings as well as other local congregations. We look forward to working within a network of faith communities on this issue. We hope it will increase the tide of concerned individuals who are challenging lawmakers and all citizens to end this civil injustice. We believe that by actively bringing the issue to people’s hearts and minds, the law will be changed sooner than if we did nothing at all. Now that there are five states in the nation that have legalized same-gender marriage, we hope that our collective energy can be used to change the law throughout the nation. We invite you and your meeting to do what our meeting has done. We would be happy to hear from you on this issue. Please feel free to contact us at http://www.tcfm.org.