Church bells rang out across the country two weeks ago today to celebrate the Supreme Court decisions supporting marriage equality. From St. John’s Episcopal Church across the square from the White House to St. Paul’s Cathedral in San Diego, many houses of worship marked the June 26 rulings with a joyful noise.
The ringing bells were a vivid reminder that religious communities have been crucial in the fight for freedom, equality, and justice for lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender, or LGBT, Americans. Despite the conventional notion that religion is inherently opposed to LGBT equality, the truth is that clergy and people in the pews have long been working both under the radar and publicly for LGBT equality.
People of faith, for instance, have connected with scholars to develop solid theologies that support LGBT moral equality. They have created support and advocacy networks in virtually every denomination, pressured religious opponents to repudiate hateful and dehumanizing language against LGBT people, and sponsored honest conversations within their houses of worship. Beyond that, people of faith have also created messaging and outreach that acknowledges the different places religious people are on the journey toward LGBT acceptance. This messaging acknowledges conflicts of conscience and points the way toward celebrating LGBT equality, not in spite of, but because of one’s faith.
While faith communities were doing this internal work, LGBT advocacy groups came to realize their importance as allies. After all, when right-wing opponents compare you to murderers, rapists, and thieves, and claim that you are an abomination, it makes sense to have religious partners who can rebut such hateful rhetoric and proclaim a very different message—one of love, compassion, and inclusivity. But beyond making good strategic sense, collaborating with faith allies came about in part because many LGBT advocates are quietly people of faith. With religious partners promoting moral equality, LGBT advocates could “come out” as people of faith and wage the battle with their whole—political and spiritual—selves.
The fruits of these labors were evident in recent victories for marriage equality. Alan van Capelle, head of Bend the Arc, described his years of working with Pride in the Pulpit to pass marriage-equality legislation in New York. “We started with one lone organizer and just a handful of clergy,” he said in an article for The Advocate. “In a few short years we had 1,000 ministers, rabbis, and priests involved, engaging thousands of people across the state at 800 different congregations.” Marriage equality became legal in New York in 2011.
In Maryland black church leaders stood up and spoke out for marriage equality in media ads as part of the Marylanders for Marriage Equality coalition. They stressed the importance of protecting religious liberty—no religious institutions would be forced to perform a same-sex marriage against their beliefs—along with the need for everyone to be treated equally under the law. Marriage equality became legal in Maryland in 2012.
Mainers United for Marriage included faith groups in its coalition, including Catholics for Marriage Equality and the Religious Coalition Against Discrimination. As in Maryland, faith leaders in Maine emphasized that religious liberty would be protected if the ballot referendum passed. “Saying yes on One [the marriage equality referendum] does not take away religious freedom. It increases and celebrates the freedoms we share,” said Rev. Ben Shambaugh, dean of Portland, Maine’s Cathedral of St. Luke. Marriage equality became legal in Maine in 2012.
In Minnesota, Washington state, New Hampshire, Washington, D.C., and elsewhere across the country, faith communities and LGBT advocates worked together to achieve freedom and equality. They also worked in partnership around marriage-equality cases before the Supreme Court earning two crucial victories for LGBT equality.
Attorney Roberta Kaplan, who represented Edith Windsor in her federal lawsuit against the Defense of Marriage Act, or DOMA, in United States v. Windsor, highlighted the importance of a friend-of-the-court brief submitted by dozens of faith groups on behalf of Windsor’s case. Kaplan said she considered that brief the most important one submitted to the Court other than her own.
According to van Capelle in his Advocate article:
Organizing people of faith is not about eradicating their beliefs. It’s about finding common ground. … In the end, the one thing we should remember is that the heart of all our faith traditions is love. Love for self, love for our neighbors, and love as something divine, to be cherished. That deep well of love is at the heart of the faithful’s support for our community in this fight.
Sally Steenland is Director of the Faith and Progressive Policy Initiative at the Center for American Progress. Steenland, a best-selling author, former newspaper columnist, and teacher, explores the role of religion and values in the public sphere.