Legalizing Gay: The Men and Women of Faith

HawkesWhen Troy Perry founded the MCC, he was one of the first to see a demand for a community of gay worshippers. Rev. Hawkes, Rev. Perry's and the MCC's Canadian champion, was so fed up with not being able to solemnize gay marriages in Toronto that in January 2001, he performed a same-sex wedding in defiance of the law. He was Canada's Gavin Newsom, leading a revolution that ended much more happily. After Rev. Hawkes performed the marriage, the Toronto city clerk's office refused to register it. The lawsuit that followed affirmed the marriage and eventually declared the common law definition of marriage as "invalid to the extent that it refers to “one man and one woman." (Halpern et al. v. The Attorney General of Canada), thus opening the door to full marriage equality in Ontario. And, the leaders of Glide have created one of the most open, progressive, and celebratory houses of worship that brings together all individuals in the name of peace, love, and equality. An important tenet of Glide's community belief is LGBT equality.

This leadership and bridge-building is of singular importance, second only to exercising power where it counts. To that end, religious groups from many faiths have come together to file amicus briefs against the Defense of Marriage Act and against Prop 8. In their brief in Gill v. OPM, the First Circuit case that recently declared DOMA unconstitutional, for example, we see the importance of religious dialogue and religious allies.

To persons of faith, DOMA's definition of valid marriages for the purposes of federal law discriminates against those faiths that would define marriage differently. Whereas Gill's attorneys and the Department of Justice argued that DOMA fails a constitutional test because it treads on powers traditionally and exclusively left to the states and because it treats similarly situated individuals simply because of their sexual orientation, the amicus brief from our religious allies argued that DOMA departed from the federal government's traditional neutrality among various religious definitions of marriage, enshrining one — a particularly conservative and arguably ahistorical Judeo-Christian definition — as the only federal definition of civil marriage. In this way, DOMA violates the Constitution's ban on the establishment of religion, or the favoring of one religious doctrine over another.

CrossThis novel legal argument complements the moral weight and access brought by religious allies. We often find that our quest for equality takes us across religious territory and we shy away from those engagement all too often. The campaign against Prop 8 in California was decried for its anemic religious outreach, as were other campaigns. Granted, many religious houses spout hateful invectives against the gay community; but, it is also liberal reticence to engage in the language of morality, values, and piety that push our leaders to give up finding religious allies before they even try. After all, the libertarian language of freedom and rights is the balliwick of progressives. We feel most comfortable when discussing our right to do this or our freedom from that. But, true equality and honor for gay persons requires more than that. It requires that we dive into the language of values and morality and prove that our lives and marriages are worthy of state recognition.

Here's why: If marriage and equality were truly only about rights and freedom, we would be content to take government out of our lives entirely, to not only let us love in private, but to get out of the business of consecrating marriages and protecting workers. Our cause is not to argue that government should leave us alone, but that we deserve full inclusion in a society that our government is there to protect and foster. To make that argument in a country whose institutions have strong Judeo-Christian roots requires us to prove the moral worth of gay persons, not the moral depravity of government.

Perhaps leaders like Perry, Hawkes, Moore, Williams, Greenberg, Kleinbaum, Potts, and Pierson can be beacons and bridge-builders. Perhaps we learn from their example and reach out to our friends of faith, making them essential allies in our quest for liberation.

Postscript: In full disclosure, I am not a religious person. I grew up in an observant Jewish home, the son of a clergyman, and my rather complicated relationship with organized religion has removed faith as a force in my life. What I write here today is not so much dependent on a deep understanding of God and religion, but rather on the role the language of faith can play in our quest for freedom.


Ari Ezra Waldman teaches at Brooklyn Law School and is concurrently getting his PhD at Columbia University in New York City. He is a 2002 graduate of Harvard College and a 2005 graduate of Harvard Law School. His research focuses on technology, privacy, speech, and gay rights. Ari will be writing weekly posts on law and various LGBT issues. 

Follow Ari on Twitter at @ariezrawaldman.