Civil marriage is a civil right

After coming to Northampton I announced that I'd no longer serve as an agent of a discriminatory state by signing marriage licenses. To accept that role is to cross the alleged boundary between church and state, but it's worse. Institutionalized discrimination in marriage means that my signature gets a heterosexual couple something like 1,400 special rights and privileges, for free. A same-sex couple may spend thousands of dollars in legal fees only to win a small part of those rights and privileges, the actual honoring of which remains dubious. I continue to conduct the religious ceremonies, for same- and opposite- sex couples alike, on an equal basis. In Massachusetts, a $75 Justice of the Peace fee gets heterosexual couples those 1,400 extra goodies. On November 18, 2003, the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts ruled that there is no grounds in the Massachusetts Constitution to bar same-sex couples from marrying. The Court ordered the Commonwealth to make provision fr same-sex marriage in six months. I conducted a celebratory service at the Unitarian Society of Northampton and Florence. Six months later — on May 17 — the first licenses were issued. Northampton followed only Provincetown and Cambridge in the number of licenses. I conducted another celebratory event featuring the film Tying the Knot, with remarks by State Senator Stan Rosenberg, who had fought hard for marriage equality. You can read more about it here:

UUA website page about our marriage protest, with links
Equal Marriage in Massachusetts
Freedom to Marry
Mass Equality

Then came the courageous decision of the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court. Unitarian Universalists all over the Commonwealth and all over the country worked to overcome the opposition of the Governor, many legislators, and the Roman Catholic church. Here is my address on the eve of legal same-sex marriage in Massachusetts:
Jay's address on the eve of same-sex marriage in Massachusettsts

The UUA headquarters from Beacon Street in front of the State House
 

At year's end 2006, somewhere near 10,000 same-sex couples have been married in Massachusetts.

Former Massachusetts Congressman Gerry E. Studds, the first openly gay person elected to the United States Congress and longtime champion of New England fishermen and the ocean environment, died October 14. He was 69.
Gerry Studds is survived by Dean T. Hara, his husband and partner, who was at his bedside when he died. Studds and Hara were among the first same-sex couples to be legally married in Massachusetts in 2004.
He represented the 12th Congressional District, Cape Cod and the Islands, New Bedford, and the South Shore for 12 Congressional terms from 1983 until 1997.
He was a ranking member of the House Democratic leadership and during his 24 years in the House of Representatives he lent an eloquent voice to health and human rights issues.

First elected in 1972, Studds entered politics as part of a generation emboldened by its opposition to the Vietnam War and turned his focus in Congress to the issues that were close to the hearts of his coastal constituents. He’d been reelected five times when in 1983 he became the first member of Congress to come out as a gay man. He served on the House Foreign Affairs Committee and was a leading and outspoken critic of the Reagan Administration’s policy in Central America, particularly its illegal funding and support of the Contra rebels in Nicaragua. During these subcommittee hearings, Studds often went head-to-head with Elliott Abrams, then Assistant Secretary of State for Inter-American Affairs, and now a member of this Bush administration, Elliot Abrams, who pleaded guilty in 1991 to withholding information from Congress in the Iran-contra affair. As a young peace activist in 1968, Gerry Studds served as New Hampshire state coordinator for Eugene McCarthy’s presidential primary campaign which helped force President Lyndon Johnson out of the race. He went on to serve as a delegate to the tumultuous 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago.

I revered Gerry Studds. I remember him well when, in the 1980s, I frequently filled the pulpit at the Unitarian Universalist Meetinghouse in Provincetown. The Congressman was regularly in the congregation and proved to be one of the kindest human beings I have ever known. But I also remember his scathing words in those congressional debates about the Reagan administration’s interventions in Latin America, which included the undermining and overthrow of governments that wouldn’t do its bidding and its support for paramilitary death squads in El Salvador, Guatamala, and elsewhere. And I remember his speech at the 1987 March on Washington for Gay and Lesbian Rights. There was no more acute mind, no more eloquent voice, than that of Gerry Studds.
That is not, however, the quite the end of the story.
This is from the October 17th Lowell Sun.

WASHINGTON — Gerry Studds, the nation’s first openly gay congressman, pushed the country to another landmark development when he died Saturday: the federal government for the first time will deny death benefits to a congressman’s spouse.
The federal government does not recognize the 2004 Massachusetts’ marriage between Studds and Dean T. Hara, and won’t provide a portion of Studds’ $114,337 annual pension to his surviving spouse.
The federal law, defined by the Defense of Marriage Act, not only trumps the Bay State’s gay marriage law but reveals its limitations.
“A gay spouse will not receive any sort of pension or annuity or anything like that,” said Chad Cowan, a spokesman for the U.S. Office of Personnel Management, which administers the congressional pension program under federal law.
Wives and husbands of deceased lawmakers collect more than half of the generous congressional pension earned by their late spouse.
Long-serving members of Congress can retire with up to 80 percent of their highest salary.
When Studds, 69, died from a vascular illness Saturday, he was receiving an estimated annual pension of $114,337.

Although similar state benefits are provided to same-sex spouses within Massachusetts, the state’s gay marriage law is left toothless outside the Commonwealth by a federal law passed in 1996 known as the Defense of Marriage Act — that law that Clinton signed. It supercedes any state initiative legalizing same-sex marriage, and declares that federal benefits normally passed along to surviving spouses are limited to “a person of the opposite sex who is a husband or wife.”

The federal law was passed a decade ago when it looked like Hawaii would legalize gay marriage (it didn’t). The law sat idle for years until Massachusetts allowed gay people to marry.
The federal law prevents gay spouses from getting Social Security benefits, school scholarships, health care, veterans’ benefits and other financial privileges offered through marriage. That law now affects the 8 to 12 thousand same-sex newlyweds in Massachusetts — and now any same-sex couple legally joined in New Jersey. Gary Buseck, legal director of Gay & Lesbian Advocates & Defenders, said “This is the first time right in the congressional family a distinguished member is being treated differently than other members.” Melissa Wagoner, a spokesperson for Senator Kennedy, who is the senior Democrat on the Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions, said, “It’s wrong for our laws to deny any American the basic right to be part of a family and to be free from the stain of bigotry and discrimination.”

The pension benefits are automatic for lawmakers caught misbehaving. U.S. Rep. Bob Ney, the Ohio Republican who pled guilty Friday to conspiracy charges and faces up to 10 years in prison for taking bribes from lobbyist Jack Abramoff, will get his pension for the rest of his life, even while in prison. But there will be no pension money for Gerry Studds’ husband Dean Hara.
The weekend when Gerry Studds died, our governor, Mitt Romney, spent no time mourning Gerry Studds. Instead he was at Tremont Temple in Boston, where the fanatical hate group Family Research Council was holding a nationwide telecast condemning same-sex marriage as satanic. He was one of the speakers.
Brilliant. That’s what our governor was doing that weekend, joining a crowd of ignorant right-wing bullies devoted to gay-bashing and hate, because he thinks that’s what it takes to get the Republican party to nominate him for President.
Meanwhile the four Roman Catholic bishops of Massachusetts were exhorting the state’s 3 million Catholics to demand a constitutional amendment restricting marriage to heterosexual couples. The bishops, led by Cardinal Sean P. O'Malley of Boston, want Catholics to go to the State House for the Constitutional Convention Nov. 9 — the date the vote was scheduled on the proposed amendent to end same-sex marriage. If a mere 25 percent of the legislators vote for it in two successive sessions of the Constitutional Convention, the amendment will go on the 2008 ballot for a public vote.
Religious supporters of same-sex marriage, including my own Unitarian Universalist Association, were fighting back. They have printed thousands of copies of a brochure titled, “Why We Don't Vote on Civil Rights,” for distribution in houses of worship. They are also preparing to publish newspaper ads signed by a group of lay Catholics declaring that O'Malley doesn't speak for them on the issue of marriage.
Ironically, the bishops and priests of the Roman Catholic Church themselves possess the legal right to civil marriage; they haven’t suggested the legislature amend the Constitution or pass laws to prohibit it. There’s no need: for their own religious reasons, and in obedience to their church, they aren’t going to exercise that right. The right to marry does not compel one to marry. The bishops ought to turn the efforts to persuading their own flock, a majority of whom don’t, apparently, agree with them — rather than seeking to force such an abridgement of rights and opportunity on the rest of us, who care not at all about Roman Catholic dogma. What is in question is civil law, not churchly sacraments.

The outcome: encouraged by the November 7 election — which saw pro-marriage equality Deval Patrick elected governor and no pro-marriage equality legislator defeated and several new equality advocates replacing bigots, the joint House and Senate meeting as Constitutional Convention adjourned without putting the anti-equality amendment on the ballot! Outgoing Gov. Romney attempted, apparently without success, to force the amendment onto the ballot.