Monroe Moore and Lupe Perez, a couple from my church, requested and were denied a marriage license last week at the Buncombe County Register of Deeds in Asheville, N.C. With his cropped grey hair and gentle smile, Moore stood next to his partner of 21 years, Perez, who presented his discharge from the U.S. Army as proof of his citizenship. Their three adopted children accompanied them to the courthouse, and our priest stood behind the couple as they entered the office.
During the past two weeks, 20 couples walked into this office, day after day, and requested a marriage license as part of the WE DO campaign, launched by the Campaign for Southern Equality. With plans to expand to other Southern communities, the campaign comes in the wake of a proposed amendment to the North Carolina constitution to ban the marriage of same-sex couples, although current state law prohibits marriage equality.
The simplicity of the campaign -- a request for a marriage license -- has garnered national attention from MSNBC, the Associated Press and a tweet from the Ellen DeGeneres Show. A poignant YouTube video highlighting the campaign garnered more than 100,000 hits during the first week of its release.
As a person of faith, I have watched the issue of gay marriage divide Christian denominations and congregations. I yearn for the day when religious principles of love and justice become the focus of the church, rather than divisive debates over the sanctity of gay marriage. Like an answer to a prayer, this campaign places the human story at the center, with faith leaders as allies, not adversarial actors.
The Power of Story and Encounter
The WE DO campaign posted engaging two-minute videos that documented the story of each couple requesting a marriage license. In one video, I saw images of Moore and Perez at home with their children, looking over family photo albums. "There's the whole family," said their daughter, pointing to one photo.
These stories dissolved stereotypes of gay marriage through a visual narrative of families, newborn babies and grandchildren. Every couple came to the counter of the Register of Deeds with history, a commonality shared by us all, especially for all faith traditions that honor the power of story.
When Moore and Perez asked for their marriage license, Drew Reisinger, the Register of Deeds, said: "I read your story online. You have a great story. After 21 years, you deserve to have the state recognize it. I'm sorry that's not the case." A counter separated this couple from the person charged with enforcing state law, but the video captured the mutual respect and the pain in the human encounter.
Our priest, the Rev. Brian Cole, stood behind the couple and told me that from his perspective, he could only see the face of the Register of Deeds, as he wrote the word "rejected" in the corner of the application.
The Power of the Church as Allies, Not Adversaries
In this campaign, religious leaders took the role of allies, bearing witness to the stories of the couples. If clergy disagreed with the actions, they didn't attend. To me, the church appears stronger by acting in this supportive role by choice, rather than spinning wheels in denominational debates, removed from the daily lives of those faced with inequalities.
Before couples entered the courthouse, campaign director Jasmine Beach-Ferrara, a graduate of Harvard Divinity School, gathered with clergy, family and friends of the couple and asked three questions: Do you believe in love? Do you believe in equality? Do you believe that people can change the world? The response to each question was simple: "We Do!"
The two-week campaign culminated in an interfaith blessing of families in front of the Buncombe County Courthouse with about 300 people in attendance. After the blessing, Elizabeth Eve and the Rev. Kathryn Cartledge, a couple in their 60s, asked for a marriage license for the second time and were rejected. In an act of civil disobedience, they sat cross-legged on the floor of the Register of Deeds and read aloud a list of the 1,138 rights they are denied as a same-sex couple. They were arrested, charged with second degree trespassing and later released.
After watching their story online, I know that Elizabeth and Kathryn are not just a gay couple in their 60s. Together for 30 years, they met while working in a soup kitchen in Atlanta, have raised two children and now have four grandchildren. They are people of faith, just like me, who believe in love, equality and that people can change the world.