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Freedom to Marry group honors Unitarian Universalists

Three Massachusetts congregations honored for gay marriage advocacy.
By Tom Stites

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three UU ministers

The Rev. Dr. Sheldon W. Bennett of United First Parish in Quincy (left); the Rev. Kathy Schmitz of All Souls in Braintree; and the Rev. Ken Read-Brown of First Parish in Hingham, all in Massachusetts, were honored on behalf of their congregations for their marriage equality advocacy. (Erika Nonken)

Three Unitarian Universalist congregations south of Boston received awards Tuesday, February 13, for their stalwart support of marriage equality for same-sex couples, particularly for lobbying state legislators to vote against a proposed amendment to the state constitution that could end marriage equality in the only state that has it.

In a ceremony at the Massachusetts State House, the Religious Coalition for the Freedom to Marry presented its Community Faith in Action Award to All Souls UU Church of Braintree, First Parish in Hingham, and United First Parish Church in Quincy. The coalition is an interfaith group that supports marriage equality in Massachusetts.

“There are many UU congregations in districts of legislators who oppose marriage, and many congregations have done great work on this issue, but these three congregations have taken it a step forward into the public arena,” said Rabbi Devon Lerner, the coalition’s executive director. “And it’s not just the ministers—it’s the ministers and the members of the congregations together. That’s essential.”

Massachusetts legalized same-sex marriage on May 17, 2004, as a result of a ruling by the state’s Supreme Judicial Court. Opponents immediately began a campaign for an amendment to the Massachusetts Constitution barring same-sex marriage. At the end of its 2006 session, the state legislature allowed the amendment to move forward. But for the amendment to appear on the ballot in 2008, 25 percent of the legislature will have to approve it again in the 2007 session, so lobbying by marriage equality supporters has taken on special urgency.

The Rev. Ken Read-Brown of First Parish in Hingham, which is widely known as the “Old Ship Church,” said that so far the congregations’ lobbying has helped change the minds of some legislators but that they were still working on others. “Everyone should be free to love whom they choose, and be committed for life to whom they choose, and to have the state recognize that commitment,” Read-Brown said. “It takes religious people like us to protect that right. We at Old Ship are proud to contribute our voice.”

United First Parish Church in Quincy received media attention last year for standing its ground in a debate about its right to hang a banner publicly proclaiming its support for same-sex marriage on its historic church building. Its minister, the Rev. Dr. Sheldon W. Bennett, was named one of five “People Who Made a Difference” by Bay Windows, a Boston weekly newspaper for the gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender communities.

In accepting the award on behalf of his congregation, Bennett pointed out that the Massachusetts Constitution’s language guaranteeing equality had been written by a member of his church, John Adams, before he went on to become the second president of the United States. The Quincy church is also known as the Church of the Presidents because Adams, his son John Quincy Adams, and their wives are entombed in the church basement.

The Rev. Kathy Schmitz of All Souls in Braintree said she was a bit surprised when she received the call asking if the congregation would accept the award. Don Swanson, chair of the church’s governing board, added with a laugh, “Everyone loves that we’ve received this award. It’s wonderful. But it’s as if we are being honored for what we do regularly as a congregation.”

The awards ceremony marked the coalition’s tenth anniversary. Its president, the Rev. Anne C. Fowler, said that a decade ago the notion of marriage equality seemed so distant that “it was kind of like signing on for a religious trip to the moon.” Membership has grown from 13 to more than 700.

Others who received awards included two state legislators who have been pivotal in the fight against the proposed amendment, three clergy coalitions that lobbied legislators to oppose the amendment, an Episcopal church in Quincy that joined in the lobbying effort, and the Freedom to Marry Coalition.

Unitarian Universalists have promoted marriage equality in Massachusetts and other states for more than a decade. The General Assembly of the Unitarian Universalist Association of Congregations called for legal recognition of same-sex marriage in 1996, and UU congregations have performed union and wedding ceremonies for same-sex couples for decades.

In 2005 the UUA received the coalition’s Peace and Justice Award; the year before, the Rev. Fred Small of the First Unitarian Church of Littleton, Mass., received the coalition’s Religious Leadership Award, and the Arlington Street Church in Boston was honored as an outstanding congregation.

“It really helps that this is not an issue internally for Unitarian Universalists,” explained Lerner. “Unitarian Universalists understand the importance and joy of inclusiveness. It’s a passionate issue for UUs because you can see in the congregations what a society without discrimination looks like.”

Erika Nonken assisted in the reporting of this article. See sidebar for links to related resources.

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