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Rev. Emily C. Heath Headshot

Religion and Gay Marriage: The Holiness of Loving Against the Odds

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I have long believed in the importance of equal marriage. I've preached about it, worked for it, and shown up at rallies. Last summer I spent time in the halls of the New York statehouse joining the call for the passage of same-sex marriage legislation in that state. It's always been a matter of justice for me.

But until recently, it's been a relatively academic one. I'd never met anyone I'd seriously considered marrying. Even as I officiated at my friends' weddings I joked with them about being a happy, perennial bachelor. Equal marriage was great. For other people.

God has a sense of humor. I say that because five months from today, my fiancée and I will be joined in marriage. Which means that in the past few months I've learned a new language, spoken only by those who have been through the minor trauma of wedding planning, which comes complete with phrases like "save the date cards," "cake tastings," and "wedding website".

But I've learned another language too. One that only same-sex couples living in the era of DOMA learn. Things like "filing married in Vermont and single on our federal taxes," "counting my partner's inclusion on my health insurance as earned income," "medical power of attorney for when we travel out of state," and "saving extra in case I die because my partner can't receive my social security".

Still, my partner and I are the fortunate ones. We are getting married in Massachusetts and then residing in Vermont, both of which recognize equal marriage. We are both members of the United Church of Christ, which means our denomination recognizes and blesses our marriage. And we both have our families' full support.

We have friends who aren't so lucky. They live in states that disallow recognition of their marriage. They have churches who turn their backs on them or, if they're lucky, recognize their union while using words other than "marriage." Their parents don't acknowledge the wedding invitation. Or, in perhaps the most heart wrenching example, one legally married spouse goes off to war and, because of DOMA and in spite of the lifting of "don't ask don't tell," her same-sex spouse is unable to collect separation benefits, be listed as "spouse," or receive the same health insurance that other family members of deployed soldiers receive.

When some religious leader gets on TV and talks about how equal marriage is destroying the family, and family-values types nod in agreement, do they really understand what they are doing to loving couples? Do they think about the patient who in many places is not legally guaranteed a visit from her partner? Or about the couple who has to pay extra taxes each year just because of their sexual orientation? Or about the soldier who worries about how a partner back home will be notified if the worst thing possible happens?

No. They think about some unknown, unreal threat to Christian values. When really the greatest threat to Christian values comes from those who use their religion as a hammer to destroy the rights of others.

Christian right leaders are fond of saying that legalizing equal marriage will destroy religious freedom. They preach cautionary tales about being "forced" to marry gay couples. They know that this is not true. Any clergy member will tell you that we are never forced to marry any couple against our will. No one can force a church to perform a same-sex marriage, and the religious right knows that.

But as a pastor in a denomination that does allow equal marriage, I wonder why this question is never reversed. What about our religious freedom? Why is it that the prayers of my more fundamentalist colleagues are given greater legitimacy than those of clergy who officiate at same-sex weddings? If you want to talk about religious freedom, talk about that.

I know that eventually the laws will change. I hope it happens in my lifetime. I think it will. But more than that, I hope the religious rhetoric of this country changes. I hope that Christians in particular learn to embody the best qualities of the Gospel: justice, love f neighbor, compassion, hospitality, and grace. I hope that happens in my lifetime too; but I'm less optimistic.

For now, though, I'm learning a new spiritual lesson. I'm learning to rejoice in the midst of uncertainty, and to live in gratitude for what God has done for me and my partner. LGBT folks often say there is nothing unusual about equal marriage. With all due respect, they're wrong. Because to grow up in a culture that tells you that you don't deserve happiness with another person, to see it codified in reactionary laws, to hear about it from those who claim your same faith, and yet to find love anyway is unusual. It's unusually holy. Because only something that comes from God can withstand all of that.

Five months from today, I will say, "I do." I preach every Sunday and yet these will probably be the holiest words I ever say. Words forged in the soul despite the words of the world. Words that signify a commitment in an era where commitments are often ignored. Words that speak justice in the face of bias. I can't wait to say them. I can't wait to live a life of the everyday holy with the woman I love.

But today, like most days, I feel just like any other member of a couple getting married. Because I only have five months. And there are a lot of cake tastings to schedule.