Rabbis at Shir Tikvah in Minneapolis are joining a smattering of leaders at other congregations in the state and around the nation who will no longer sign civil marriage licenses as a protest against state laws that don’t recognize gay marriages.
They’ll still perform religious weddings, said Rabbi Michael Adam Latz, who will preach to his Shir Tikvah congregation tonight about the new policy. It will continue, he said, until marriage equality laws are passed in Minnesota.
“We’ll continue to have weddings — and the couples will be ‘Jewishly’ married, gay and straight alike — but until state law is changed, we will no longer be agents of the state,” Latz said. Couples can arrange with a judge or other authorized official to sign the state’s marriage license, Latz said.
Shir Tikvah is the latest Minnesota congregation — of varying denominations — to take such a stand on the issue of gay marriage. Others locally include White Bear Unitarian Universalist Church and Lyndale United Church of Christ.
A website urging churches nationwide to pursue the issue offers news, resources and sermons from ministers around the country, but it hasn’t been updated for more than a year.
Of course, many churches oppose same-sex marriage. Minnesota’s Catholic bishops, for example, late last year mailed a DVD condemning the idea to more than 400,000 Catholics.
Effort to push issue at Legislature shelved
In recent years, leaders in some progressive Minnesota churches, along with many in the gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender community, had high hopes that Minnesota law might be changed to allow gay marriage, but those ambitions have been shelved with the takeover of the state Legislature by Republican lawmakers.
“It seems less likely that we’ll see the changes with the current Legislature,” said the Rev. Victoria Safford of White Bear Unitarian, which has performed religious-only weddings since 2002. “However I firmly believe that the way marriage equality will come about is not only through legislative action, but through the will of the people.”
It’s expected that leaders in the new Republican majority will push for a statewide vote on a constitutional amendment that would decree that that marriage would be the union of only a man and a woman.
Still, Latz, Safford and others say it’s important for churches and synagogues that believe in the principle of marriage equality to continue their efforts.
“This is part of who we are,” said Pastor Don Portwood of Lyndale UCC. The congregation there voted in 2006 to forgo the signing of civil marriage licenses until the state recognizes marriages for all couples.
For Latz, the idea had been brewing for years; he came to the Minneapolis synagogue nearly two years ago from Seattle, which is “more progressive for the GLBT community,” he said.
“I’ve had a growing sense that this doesn’t feel right, but when I got here a year and a half ago, I didn’t feel it was the first thing to do,” said Latz, who is gay and, with his partner, has two children.
“But when a congregant gave us a sermon on her niece — who was married in Massachusetts, where she and her partner were treated like a full legal couple — I realized that even though I was a relatively new rabbi, that the timing is right.”
Because this isn’t wedding season, Latz hasn’t put the new policy into effect yet. “But I’ve alerted the couples who are planning their weddings for this summer, and they’ve said they’ll go to a justice of the peace a few days before or after the wedding to have the civil papers signed,” he said.
“Our goal is not to inconvenience anybody, but we feel we can’t participate in a system that grants rights to some and not to others.”
The congregation has been supportive, he said.
“A letter went out about the change in December,” he said earlier this week, “and I’m preaching more in depth about it Friday night, talking about what we hope to achieve and how the congregation can be involved in equality and justice for all couples.
“So far, I’ve had maybe 90 positive calls or emails about it and three or four others. Two questioned, why now. And there was one who disagreed. Another wondered if rabbis should have a role in politics. I said that, in fact, we’re removing ourselves from the political system and only doing the religious acts.”
How the process works
In other congregations where marriage licenses aren’t signed, couples generally have embraced the idea, or at least been willing to work around it.
Said Safford of White Bear Unitarian:
“When a hetero couple wants to be married, we proceed as always, meeting to plan the ceremony. The only difference is, because I won’t sign the marriage certificate that I tell them they have to find someone who will.
“They usually go to a county office to find an official or judge, who’s legally authorized to sign. We’ve worked out congenial relationships with some Washington County officials who totally support our stand, so the couples don’t have to go through some involved explanation.
In nine years, I’ve had only one couple who decided to get married elsewhere after hearing about our position, and one of them was being deployed to Iraq, so they just didn’t have the time for that extra step. But they still supported our stand.”
For Portwood of Lyndale UCC, who has only a few marriages a year in the congregation of 110 people, the decision represents “who we are.”
In many ways, he said, it feels like “a civil rights thing.”
Latz of Shir Tikvah agreed.
“Today people look to leaders to have conviction and moral courage, and I became a rabbi because of the Jewish tradition to make the world whole and just, even if it’s not always the most popular.”
Will the stand on principle make a difference?
“I don’t know what impact it will have,” Latz said. “We can’t change the laws by ourselves but we can refuse to participate in a system that discriminates. Members of our congregation are working to politically change that system, and we’ll continue to be good partners with other organizations that are working for change.”