In October of 2004, the Unitarian Universalist Church in Reston (UUCR) decided to put up a sign on its property facing Wiehle Avenue that read “Civil Marriage is a Civil Right.” Although the sign was clearly visible from a busy road, it had not attracted controversy, despite the fact it deals with a social issue that attracts a lot of attention in Virginia, same-sex marriages. The banner was torn in half Wednesday, Feb. 2, sometime between 4 and 6 p.m.
THE REV. SYDNEY Wilde from UUCR said in the past three months, since the sign had been put up in the church’s yard, she had received only one negative comment on it. A man contacted the church, and thanked it for putting up the sign. The reason for his appreciation was that “those” people would possibly leave his church and leave him alone. Indeed, Wilde said, some have joined the congregation because they felt more comfortable in one that openly accepts same-sex couples. Wilde said UUCR decided in 2000 to become a welcoming congregation, which meant it would examine prejudices and not discriminate against anyone.
Recently, UUCR established a Social Justice Committee, chaired by Hank Blakely. He said civil marriage is one of the main issues to be tackled by the committee. He added the Social Justice Committee is different from other church committees as it is not one where issues are talked about, and then everyone goes home. It is a group committed to action. “Whenever the rights of people are threatened, we will speak out,” said Blakely.
Anne Thomas, head of the Social Justice Committee’s Civil Marriage Task Force, is exposed to the issue personally. She is a mother of a gay man, who decided to marry last February in San Francisco. She said there are a lot of people who do not have a gay relative and therefore lack a personal viewpoint on the issue. “If you hurt them [the gay population] you’re hurting a lot of other people,” she said. Thomas added it was difficult enough for individuals discovering their own sexuality to do so, without the hatred that comes along with it.
WHEN THE SIGN went up, a week before the November elections, UUCR thought there would be damage done to it. There was even concern that there may be cases of vandalism against the church itself for putting up the sign. However, after months without an incident, the church leadership began feeling comfortable that there would not be any incidents. Wilde said UUCR had made a second sign, in case the first was destroyed, so it could be quickly replaced. Since there were no incidents, decided to put the second sign back to back with the original one. Now the church is left without a sign, but is in the process of making a new one, which will go up as soon as it is made. The new sign, also a banner, will be slightly larger than the previous one, said Wilde.
Blakely said the reason why the destruction happened at this point in time is because the battle over the issue is shaping up across the nation and especially in the state of Virginia. He compared the people who oppose same-sex marriages to the people who opposed interracial marriages 40 years ago. He said he was tired of people who opposed same-sex marriages hiding behind a banner of religion and Christianity that God hates a certain group of people. People who advocate this kind of thought on the issue, said Blakely, are trying to set the frame of the debate to make it a moral issue. If they succeed in making it a moral issue, he said they would win the debate, but he argues it is not a moral issue, but a civil one.
IF THE ISSUE is a civil one, it raises a number of legal questions regarding the rights of same-sex couples to adopt children, receive benefits, guardianship, property and inheritance rights. Thomas said the state of Virginia does not allow companies to allow domestic partnership benefits. Although the law pertains to both homosexual and heterosexual couples, Thomas believes it targets the former. Heterosexual couples can choose to marry if they need to receive the benefits, but homosexual couples do not have that choice because same-sex marriage is outlawed in Virginia. She said the law is counter-productive to society, because a society with more people on health insurance is better. Thomas said she is worried that proposed constitutional amendments on same-sex marriages show an improper use of the Constitution. She described the Constitution as a contract between the government and those governed, and added that the issue at hand is a social one, not a governing one.
Thomas said most people do not understand the distinction between a civil and a religious marriage. Religious marriage, she said, is considered a rite and ministers are allowed to issue a marriage license. A civil marriage implies legal rights.
THE CHURCH will put up the new sign as soon as it is ready. Blakely said he expects it will be torn down again, now that it already has been. The church will continue to put up new signs for each one torn down. “When we told people we would welcome them to our church,” said Thomas, “we meant we would support them.” She said the society should not exclude a population from itself, because that leads down an ugly path.
The support for the same-sex couple, said Wilde, is basic to her congregation’s religious beliefs. She said the decision to support same-sex couple is derived from two principles. The first principle is to affirm and promote the inherent worth and dignity of every person. The second principle is to affirm and promote equity, justice, and human relations. Anti-gay laws deny that, said Wilde. “Strengthening any family will strengthen all families,” she said.