The History of Gay Religious Activism in the U.S.

LGBT RELIGIOUS HISTORY

Not unlike the thousands of public parties held this past June during Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Pride Month, hundreds of gay San Franciscans gathered on New Year’s Day 1965 for the much anticipated Mardi Gras Ball held at 625 Polk Street in the Tenderloin District. The most interesting aspect of the San Francisco ball was the fact it was held as a fundraiser for pro-gay clergy, according to Jaweed Kaleem’s article Unearthing The Surprising Religious History Of American Gay Rights Activism. Although today Americans for (homophiles or gay right activists) and against gay rights typically use their religious beliefs as the reasons, those who oppose same sex marriage and other rights for LGBT individuals have continued to declare that God is on their side. However, in the mid 1960s, LGBT activists often looked to men of the cloth as allies in the fight for justice and human rights, according to historians. Just months before the event, two dozen Bay Area Methodist, Lutheran, Episcopal and United Church of Christ clergy and gay activists joined together to form the Council on Religion and and Homosexual in order to promote “need for a better understanding of human sexuality” and its “broad variations and manifestations.” Clergy and lawyers had negotiate with the police on behalf of the group to let the dance happen, but according to contemporary new articles, police showed up to take pictures of those attending the ball in order to intimidate them. When cops wanted to come inside, the lawyers blocked them causing six people to end up in jail for interfering with police and disorderly conduct. The clergy fought back with a press conference the next day and mobilized the city’s gay community and the pastors. In addition, the American Civil Liberties Union brought a lawsuit over the arrest making it the first time the ACLU had joined in the fight for gay rights, according to the LGBT Religious Archives Network.

According to Kaleem’s article: “‘That was years before the 1969 Stonewall riots, which is popularly considered the beginning of the gay rights movement,’ said Heather White, a visiting assistant professor of religion at the New College of Florida who has spent years combing through LGBT archives for an upcoming book, tentatively titled Reforming Sodom: Protestants and the Rise of Gay Rights. ‘And that’s just one of the best-known stories. There were Councils on Religion and Homosexuality and similar groups in D.C., Pennsylvania, Ottawa, Hawaii.””

The LGBT Religious Network along with a growing group of scholars such as White have documented hundreds of stories like the San Francisco clergy since it was found 13 years ago at the United Church of Christ-affiliated Chicago Theological Seminary based now in Berkely, California, at the Pacific School of Religion’s Center for Lesbian and Gay Studies in Religion and Ministry. The organization’s website offers a series of profiles of and oral history interviews with Protestant, Catholic, Muslim, Jewish, Buddhist and Pagan LGBT clergy and religious activists, living and dead, Kaleem reports.White, part of the network advisory committee, explains that the expectations about how religion would view gay rights changed after the 1960s.

White explains, “What we know of the face of religion and gay rights has been shaped by a shift that occurred in the 1970s with the rise of conservative Christianity. It’s a consolidated political force that wasn’t in place before then. There were certainly conservative people and religious people who were involved in politics, but in the 1950s and 1960s, homophile organizations saw religious leaders as likely allies. That is less of the case today, though things are changing.”

A Pew Research Center survey released last Thursday reported that 62 percent of American believe homosexuality should be accepted rather than frowned upon by society, but there is still a clear division between religious Americans as far as gay rights are concerned especially same sex marriages. Recent polls show that white evangelicals strongly oppose gay marriage, while the nation’s largest churches do not support same sex marriage e.g. the Roman Catholic Church, the Southern Baptist Convention, the United Methodist Church and the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. However, Catholic American individuals tend to support gay marriage with several additional denomintaions allowing clergy to perform same sex marriages or blessings e.g.  the Presbyterian Church (USA), the Episcopal Church, the United Church of Christ, the Unitarian Universalist Association of Congregations, and both Reform and Conservative Jews. According to Bernard Schlager, executive director of the Center for Lesbian and Gay Studies in Religion and Ministry and an associate professor of cultural and historical studies at the Pacific School of Religion, “Some of the biggest gay rights activists and organizations started their work in churches.” Additionally, Schalger believes the inaccurate and widespread perception of religion firmly opposing gay right has changed as well, Kaleem reports. He explains, “It’s come to the point that sometimes people today say it’s more difficult to come out as a person of faith than it is to come out as LGBT in religious circles.” Melissa Wilcox, who also sits on the LGBT Religious Archives Network’s advisory committee and is an associate professor of religion and gender studies at Whitman College, has this to say: “With the increasing visibility of the marriage rights movement, we have started to see LGBT-supportive groups [within religious communities] being able to get their message out more clearly. That’s a battle for them, but many have been there all along.”

After decades of church activism, the Presbyterian Church General Assembly in the Unites States last week voted to allow pastors to officiate gay marriages in states where it is legal. An additional vote will take place to determine if the definition of marriage should be changed to cover two people not just a man and woman. Wilcox sums it up best by saying,”A lot of people are still wary of anything you’d call religion. A lot of people have been burned. But there’s a rich history out there of gay religious activism for us to appreciate and uphold.”

Abortion Controversy: A Direct Challenge to Roe v. Wade

North Dakota’s Governor Jack Dalrymple signed legislation on Tuesday banning abortion procedure if a fetal heartbeat can be detected sometimes as early as six weeks into a pregnancy which makes the state the most restrictive on abortion rights in the nation according to the Associated Press. The Republican governor also signed a measure that would make the state the first to ban abortion on genetic defects such as Down Syndrome ans a measure that requires doctors who perform abortions to be a physician with hospital admitting privileges. The measures would take effect Aug.1 fueling an attempt to close the state’s one abortion clinic in Fargo and in a statement from the Governor the fetal heartbeat bill will be a direct challenge to the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1973 Roe v. Wade ruling legalizing abortion up to 22 to 24 weeks. As the Governor explains, “Although the likelihood of this measure surviving a court challenge remains in question, this bill is nevertheless a legitimate attempt by a state legislature to discover the boundaries of Roe v. Wade. Because the U.S. Supreme Court has allowed state restrictions on the performing of abortions and because the Supreme Court has never considered this precise restriction … the constitutionality of this measure is an open question.” Of course this will not end here as the abortion rights supporters promise to pursue a long and costly legal battle that they feel the state won’t win. Planning for legal repercussions, Dalrymple’s statement said according to the Associated Press that the legislature should appropriate dollars for a litigation fund before the session ends in May.

Like North Dakota, Arkansas has also passed a 12 week ban earlier this month that also prohibits abortions when fetal heartbeat can be detected through an abdominal ultrasound and will take effect 90 days after the Arkansas Legislature adjourns. A fetal heartbeat can be detected using a vaginal ultrasound much earlier, but lawmakers did not want to require women to do this invasive imaging procedure when considering an abortion which already takes its toll on the woman. North Dakota did not specify how the heartbeat would be detected, but if a doctor performs an abortion when a heartbeat is detected then they could face a felony charge with up to five years in prison and a $5,000 fine where the woman would not face charges. North Dakota’s law to ban abortion based on genetic defects would also ban abortion based on gender selection which Pennsylvania, Arizona, and Oklahoma have similar laws outlawing gender based abortion according to the Guttmacher Institute which tracks these laws. North Dakota lawmakers moved last week to outlaw abortions in the state by defining life at conception which will come before voters in November 2014 as well as another anti-abortion bill awaiting Dalrymple’s signature that would ban abortions after 20 weeks baked on the fetus feeling pain. Dalrymple says that the measure requiring doctors to have hospital admitting privileges will likely be challenged in court, but commented that, “Nevertheless, it is a legitimate and new question for the courts regarding a precise restriction on doctors who perform abortions.”

The Calm before the Storm: Same Sex Marriage Uncharted Waters for the Supreme Court

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For photos and updates on the latest controversy click here.

The U.S. Supreme Court has begun to hear oral arguments on both sides of the Prop 8 ban after the proposition passed in November of 2008 thereby reversing by popular vote the state Supreme Court’s decision to recognize marriage equality just months earlier. As Justice Anthony Kennedy on Tuesday commented, the prospect of same sex marriage is “uncharted waters.” According to Huff Post, Kennedy commented, “And you can play with that metaphor,” and  continuing that in that consideration, “There’s a wonderful destination” or “a cliff.” Kennedy acknowledged that the issue of same sex marriage is fairly new, but the immediate legal harm to those same sex couples who cannot marry is apparent as the voices of thousands of children of same sex couples is an important aspect of the case. Kennedy went so far as to tell Charles J. Cooper, representing supporters of Prop 8, that: “They [the children] want their parents to have full recognition and legal status.  The voice of those children is considerable in this case, don’t you think?” Kennedy also casts doubts on Prop 8 and same sex marriage bans in general believing that it discriminates against gays and lesbians. Before the justices can discuss the merits of the constitutional case, Chief Justice John Robers told both advocates to argue whether the parties had legal standing to defend Prop 8 as the liberal bloc — Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen Breyer, Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan –believe Prop 8 supporters could not represent the state of California after the Governor and Attorney General refused to defense the law where the Republican appointed  members — Chief Justice Roberts and Justices Kennedy, Antonin Scalia and Samuel Alito — agree with the California Supreme Court which ruled Cooper’s clients could represent the state’s interest.

When the arguments reached the constitutional merits, the ideological alliances switched according to Huff Post. As Sotomayor asked Cooper, “Can you think of any other rational basis, reason, for a state using sexual orientation as a factor in denying homosexuals benefits or imposing burdens on them? Is there any other rational decision-making that the government could make? Denying them a job, not granting them benefits of some sort, any other decision?” And when Cooper responded with “responsible procreation”, Kagan commented, “If you are over the age of 55, you don’t help us serve the government’s interest in regulating procreation through marriage. So why is that different?” The debate became interesting when Scalia asked Ted Olson, the lawyer for the two same sex couples challenging Prop 8, “When did it become unconstitutional to exclude homosexual couples from marriage? 1791 [when the Bill of Rights was ratified]? 1868, when the 14th Amendment was adopted?” Olson responded with, “When did it become unconstitutional to prohibit interracial marriages?” Scalia responded with, “At the time that the Equal Protection Clause was adopted. That’s absolutely true. But don’t give me a question to my question.” Olson untimaly answeres that the argument of same sex marriage is on an evolutionary cycle. Alito’s issue with Olson’s argument was, “You want us to step in and render a decision based on an assessment of the effects of this institution which is newer than cell phones or the Internet,” Alito said. “On a question like that, of such fundamental importance, why should it not be left for the people, either acting through initiatives and referendums or through their elected public officials?” Ginsburg has issues with Coopers argument which relies on a case from 1971, Baker v. Nelson, where the Supreme Court dismissed a Minnesota man’s attempt to marry his male partner lacking a substantial federal question at a time when same sex intimate conduct was considered criminal.

Kennedy, who is consider the tie breaker vote on the panel, was trying to determine whether a same sex marriage ban could be viewed as gender based and determined by the end of the arguments that both sides had legitimate reasons to sue. On one hand Kennedy sees that Prop 8 supporters have standing to sue, but the right to marry especially the federal constitutional right that would extend to all states compelled him to dig a little deeper. Kennedy asked Cooper, “Why [do] you think we should take and decide this case?” After hearing the answer, Kennedy sided with his conservative colleagues that Cooper’s clients had the right to be in court, while siding with his four liberal colleagues who believe the Constitution mandates marriage equality. That leaves Kennedy who is the fifth vote in the case to man these uncharted waters and according to Huff Post if his history is any indication he just might take the plunge. The final decision is expected by July in the case, Hollingsworth v. Perry.