Organized Religion Lends Support to Marriage Equality Legislation

by Joe Siegel

EDGE Media Network Contributor

Monday March 4, 2013

Although the goals of faith communities and gay civil rights activists have not historically been aligned, in Rhode Island, the recent move of a cadre of religious leaders has become a crucial part of the effort to pass a marriage equality bill.

"Giving all Rhode Islanders full access to marriage is an opportunity to remove roadblocks to pastoral care for those faith traditions that welcome and affirm same-sex relationships," said the Reverend Gene Dyszlewski, chair of the Rhode Island Religious Coalition for Marriage Equality, at the kickoff for Rhode Islanders United for Marriage.

On January 24, the Rhode Island House of Representatives voted 51-19 to pass House bill 5015, which extends marriage rights to gay and lesbian couples. Activists are still waiting for the Senate to take up the issue.

Senate President Teresa Paiva-Weed, (D-Newport), and Senate Judiciary Committee chairman Michael McCaffrey, (D-Warwick), oppose same-sex marriage. But Paiva-Weed said she would allow a vote to take place.

Top state officials, including Governor Lincoln Chafee (I) and State Treasurer Gina Raimondo (D), have urged passage of the legislation. So have a number of civic and business groups.

And now, the Rhode Island Religious Coalition for Marriage Equality, which represents more than 100 clergy and faith leaders from 13 different denominations, has also been remarkable in its fight to secure marriage rights for same-sex couples.

The Rhode Island State Council of Churches called upon the General Assembly to pass marriage equality legislation this session.

"We believe this is an issue of tolerance and religious liberty. While there is broad diversity within communities of faith on this issue, many traditions choose to welcome same-sex relationships to the covenant of marriage," said Rev. Dr. Don Anderson, executive minister of the Rhode Island State Council of Churches. "Under current law, those open and affirming traditions are unable to do so in Rhode Island. While no church or clergy would be required by this law to contradict the teachings of their particular faith, the State Council of Churches believes those congregations who wish to perform same-sex marriages should be able to do so."

Anderson's own views evolved on the topic over time.

"I searched my own soul," said Anderson, who came from a traditional faith background. But not all clergy have experienced such a change.

Roman Catholic Bishop Thomas J. Tobin, who labeled same-sex marriage as "immoral and unnecessary" in a column in the Rhode Island Catholic, has called on legislators to vote same-sex marriage down.

Anderson believes the Catholic Church has the right to define marriage as it sees fit, but wants religious freedom to be protected in the marriage equality bill.
"I hope they won’t impose their faith on others," Anderson said.

For Reverend Amy Frenze of Hope Congregational Church in East Providence, the issue of gay marriage is personal.

"I used to be adamantly opposed to marriage equality," Frenze told EDGE. "I really thought it was something I should be against as a Christian, but as I came to meet lesbian ministers in particular, these two women really influenced me to reexamine how I thought of them as not just an idea, but as real people."

Frenze said she realized that the heart of the Bible was a message of love and noted that Jesus had stood up for the people who had been ostracized by society.

Frenze recalls speaking with a young female congregant at the church who had asked about getting married there someday. The woman wanted to marry her same-sex partner.

Knowing the woman wouldn’t be able to marry the person she loves was "a moving moment for me," Frenze said. "I realized how difficult it is to be left out of society."

Ironically, Frenze’s daughter came out as a lesbian after she had changed her mind on the issue. Frenze said she found the high number of suicides among LGBT youth to be heartbreaking.

"As a mom and as a minister, it really touches me," Frenze noted. "I really think as a person of faith, it is certainly not the message of Jesus that (LGBTs) would be left out of the Gospel."

Frenze felt that individual churches should be able to make their own judgments on same-sex marriage, but noted that there are larger considerations to be made. The benefits that come with marriage are crucial for same-sex couples, she noted.

"For society, it is a matter of basic human rights," Frenze added.

Support for marriage equality has also come from the Jewish community. The Board of Rabbis of Greater Rhode Island recently endorsed marriage rights for same-sex couples.

"We welcome the Board of Rabbis of Greater Rhode Island to our broad and growing coalition of leaders and laypeople from a diverse group of faith traditions," said Dyszlewski. "The Board is absolutely right -- our shared belief that we are created in the image and likeness of God obligates us to fight for access to the unique protection and recognition of civil marriage for all loving, committed couples in Rhode Island. I am grateful for the Board’s support and look forward to working together on this critical issue."

Rabbi Sarah Mack of Temple Beth-El in Providence, said same-sex marriage is "an issue of basic civil rights."

Mack believes the Catholic Church can be a "powerful voice for social justice," noting their advocacy on issues of poverty and hunger.

"It’s a shame when they work to suppress civil rights," Mack said.

Mack remained optimistic about the passage of marriage equality, due to the growing support for it among the general population.

"I think this is the year," said Mack.

Joe Siegel has written for a number of other GLBT publications, including In newsweekly and Options.