An address by F. Jay Deacon
Preached at the Unitarian Society of Northampton and Florence

May 16, 2004


The federal Court of Appeals for the First Circuit, in Boston, has refused to grant an emergency order halting same-sex marriages in Massachusetts, as requested by the so-called Liberty Counsel on behalf of the Catholic Action League, and less than three hours later the United States Supreme Court has done the same. We meet on the verge of history.

Tomorrow morning, all around this building, while the world watches and MTV's cameras record it all, Gina Smith and Heidi Norton, two of the original 14 plaintiffs, will fill out their marriage license intent form in front of the City Clerk, and proceed through the process. And then very likely hundreds more will do the same.

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Some say it's too soon: society isn't ready. A few hundred years more, maybe. Mr. Bush says we need to amend the United States Constitution to stop it. Mr. Kerry says we don't need the thousand or eleven hundred federal protections like immigration, social security, federal pensions, or portability throughout the country, that we should settle for civil unions, they're just as good.

But let anyone who doubts read over that list of protections and benefits and then apply the ethical principle that it is wrong to deny to another that which you find essential for yourself.

But here we are, thanks to the Commonwealth's great Constitution and a brave Court and seven couples and a lot of devoted lawyers, and the support of almost enough gutsy legislators.

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After waiting all our lives. All our lives, and more than that, because, in a society still too small for their love, 34 of those 56 whose names were read out at the beginning of this service never lived to see this day. They, and an uncounted throng of our sisters and brothers who lived alone in fear, or, if not alone, spent a lifetime maneuvering to hide or disguise their most precious relationships, and too often, if found out, were destroyed by a society too long controlled by the same forces of hate, sometimes masked in piety, that we're seeing today, and will see tomorrow.

But today! and tomorrow! We may be proud, very proud, of our Massachusetts. Of this cradle of liberty. Home of both Presidents Adams — both Unitarians, by the way — and of Senator Charles Sumner,— and of Elaine Noble, Gerry Studds, Barney Frank, and Margaret Marshall.

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And we may be proud of our faith: — It was there in the struggle to end slavery, and to oppose unjust wars, and to advance the rights and dignity of women, and of queer people. We may be proud of our faith's unambiguous solidarity with us, and constant advocacy for our cause. When our legislators, or the public, or the lobbyists for the Archdiocese, walk to the State House, that is what they see — the Unitarian Universalist headquarters hung with rainbow flags and that great banner.

All across this land, and among many faiths, the repercussions are being felt. Listen to this. An old friend, a United Church of Christ minister, emailed me this from the opposite coast:

Having been very happy in our partnership for going on six years now, Sam and I decided to no longer 'live in sin'. Yesterday morning at the Multnomah County Courthouse in Portland, Oregon, we obtained our marriage license. By early afternoon, we had exchanged our vows in a simple, beautiful backyard ceremony under blue skies. My brother Mike wrote and sang a new song for the occasion, borrowing words the Song of Songs — my favorite text. Rev Kerby Lauderdale, longtime friend, mentor, and now Pastor of Portland's Peace Church of the Brethren, officiated. A small circle of family/lifelong friends of both of ours spoke quietly and eloquently about what the day meant to us.

"We could not have anticipated this opportunity, even a few weeks ago," Pastor Kerby said, speaking for all of us. "And we are still living with a quickened and shallowed breath... fearing this opportunity to live our lives as fully human beings will be snatched away by those who fear.... (Yet here are Sam and Dan) covenanting in the presence of God and these witnesses to live, faithfully, together, in love . . . Overflowing with joy... Surrounded with love and breathing air we have never breathed.

Massachusetts is giving them courage: — in Oregon, in California, in New York. We have started a revolution. The revolution has begun, and yes, it will be televised, tomorrow morning, right here. Hallelujah.

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Religion concerns itself with the most fundamental issues of life; does so for good or for ill. It speaks to the purposes that drive our living, with human passions and possibilities. In doing so, it may serve either as a lock on the past, or as an engine of the evolution of consciousness.

It has driven the most barbaric of atrocities, and it has driven the most inspired unfoldings of magnificent human possibility.

On February 1, 1836, a young Congressman from South Carolina named James Henry Hammond stood on the House floor to argue that the African must always be slaves because it is God's will as revealed in the Bible, and so, he said, "the hand of fate has united his color and destiny." He spoke for the majority of the Congress. It was believed that the Bible endorsed Slavery. Many preachers said so, citing biblical passages.

Eventually, groups of Northerners would sign petitions to the Congress imploring them at least to end slavery in the District of Columbia. The Southern representatives were so shocked that anyone would dare interfere with this divinely-ordained system that they passed laws forbidding any petition on the subject of slavery from even coming before the Congress. And if anybody tried to travel into the South and speak or write against slavery, well, that would be a clear sign of contempt not only for the good people of the South who were only obeying the divine law, but for the divine law itself, and must be punished as such. Congressman Hammond again:

I warn the abolitionists, ignorant . . . Barbarians as they are, that if chance shall throw any of them into our hands he may expect a felon's death. . . . The indignant feelings of an outraged people, to whose hearth-stones he is seeking to carry death and desolation, pronounce his doom; and if we failed to accord it to him . . . We would merit and expect the indignation of offended heaven.1

When the Anti-Slavery Society of New York proposed in 1835 to hold its state convention in Utica, the local congressman, a friend of President Jackson, Representative Beardsley made this declaration:

The disgrace of having an Abolition Convention held in the city is a deeper one than that of twenty mobs, and . . . it would be better to have Utica razed to its foundations, or to have it destroyed like Sodom and Gomorrah, than to have the convention here.2

I tell you that to put a few things into context. That was about Utica, then. Then there was Orlando, Florida, in 1998. About the fate that would befall Orlando if it allowed Disney World host Gay Days week of June 5, and if the City of Orlando were to permit the flying of gay-themed banners from light poles to mark the event. He predicted: Earthquakes, tornadoes and possibly a meteor. He could have said widespread slaying of the first-born. But, you say, that is only Pat Robertson, a manifest nut. But he ran for President and he delivers millions of votes to the Republican Party, and when he calls their leaders, they listen.

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And then there was the Southern Baptist Convention, five[?] years ago, declaring that discrimination against gay and lesbian government workers is right and good. That wasn't all. They said that, and they said that a woman is to submit graciously" to her husbands' leadership and "serve as his helper." Because the Bible says so.

And there was the Anglican Communion. It wasn't just the opposition to the church's brave consecration of Bishop Robinson. It was the commentators blaming him and the New Hampshire Diocese for ripping the church apart, and not the people who ripped the church apart because they wanted to discriminate in the name of God!

And now there is the Catholic bishop in Colorado who will deny communion to anybody who doesn't vote as he says against any politician who supports same-sex marriage or stem-cell research.

Those who now promote their faith-based bigotry are telling us that for us to marry will wreck their own marriages somehow, though they haven't disclosed just how that's supposed to be. They say it will debase marriage. I think I've figured it out. If I move into your neighborhood and you don't like me because I'm, say, Latino or Norwegian or whatever you don't like, you'll say I'm bringing down the neighborhood. If I enter into marriage you'll say I've brought down that neighborhood, debased marriage itself. They're counting on public horror at people getting married. It won't happen. If their own marriages collapse they'll collapse of their own weight, not because of you.

It has long been socially acceptable to bash gay folks. Shame on religious people who practice, rather than challenge, this popular sin of bigotry.

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And who will answer, and who will propose a fairer human community in which justice may prevail, and freedom, and the fulfillment of human possibility?

Before Stonewall, gay and lesbian Americans crept about in secrecy, in lonely isolation, as if the preachers and bishops and right-wing politicians were right. But one day in 1969, a handful of drag queens and other queers fought back when another routine Police raid hit the Stonewall Bar on Christopher Street in New York City. Today we celebrate those who dared to challenge the accepted order of oppression. The world is different because of them.

And today we celebrate the Massachusetts Constitution and a brave Court and seven couples and a lot of devoted lawyers and all those who again dared to challenge the accepted order of oppression. We celebrate justice.

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But most of all we celebrate love.

W.H. Auden wrote:

All I have is a voice
To undo the folded lie,
. . . the lie of Authority
Whose buildings grope the sky:
There is no such thing as the State
And no one exists alone;
Hunger allows no choice
To the citizen or the police;
We must love one another or die.

Elsewhere he wrote: "When shall we learn, what should be clear as day/We cannot choose what we are free to love?"

And Bertrand Russell once said: "To fear love is to fear life, and those who fear life are already three parts dead."

Tonight's gathering, and the events of tomorrow, are a testimony against fear. No longer let us be afraid of love, or of life; no longer let us be bound or diminished by those who are afraid.

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There are still challenges. This is only the beginning of another struggle for justice, on behalf of love. There is the federal Defense of Marriage Act, signed by President Clinton, and there are DOMA laws or amendments in 38 states. There's the governor and the legislature — who have shown us what small men can do with a grand opportunity.

And there will be the campaign against the constitutional amendment that we must win in a public vote. There is the unnecessary and unjust enforcement of that 1913 law by which the Governor seeks to keep out-of-state couples from marrying here.

Some will, again, find ways to defy the injustice. No one can tell you what risks to take: lending your Massachusetts address to an out-of-state couple, perhaps, who live in one of the twelve non-DOMA states like New York or Connecticut — as is being done by a Jewish couple in Amherst.

But for today, let us celebrate love. It isn't only for couples and families and those in the spell of romance. And Love is the embrace with which we embrace Life Itself. Love remembers that it is bound up with all that is in one great kosmos of being. Emerson called it

a fire that, kindling its first embers in the narrow nook of a private bosom, caught from a wandering spark out of another private heart, glows and enlarges until it warms and beams upon multitudes of men and women, upon the universal heart of all, and so lights up the whole world and all nature with its generous flames.

It is the energy that draws us together and draws us forward. There is at the heart of things an energy so great, so holy, so incomprehensibly grand, that it ceaselessly inspires poetry and music, acts of unaccountable bravery and sacrifice, and a hopefulness born of mere glimpses of its source and its end.

But nowhere do we know that Love so immediately as in the intimate union of lives that we celebrate today: love that exists, and has existed despite laws and in the face of hate and fear, that exists and endures and triumphs.

For that love that once dared not even speak its name, it's a whole new day.

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And we celebrate, too, a religious tradition of voices that have never ceased to challenge the inadequate knowledge of the past, and the primitive prejudices, and the power of those who through force, intimidation, and privilege, maintain the systems that require the bondage and humiliation of others and distort in human faces the divine image.

Faith, said our poet Rabindranath Tagore, "is the bird that feels the light, and sings when the dawn is still dark."

Let us go forth proudly, in the name, and by the grace, of this great company of bold souls, the faith of the free.


Copyright © 2004 F. Jay Deacon. All rights reserved.