On Wednesday February 6th, I had the honor of being asked by Equality Illinois to attend a press conference and stand with clergy and faith leaders who support marriage equality in Illinois. Although I am no longer a sitting bishop, it was a great privilege to stand with these amazing women and men who signed an open letter of support for the proposed Religious Freedom and Marriage Fairness Act. Shortly, after the press conference Governor Pat Quinn, during his State of the State address to the Illinois General Assembly, called for prompt action on marriage equality legislation. After the governor’s speech, we spread out through the Capitol to meet individually with senators and representatives asking them for their support for the legislation.
Many of the religious institutions that these clergy belong to fully accept LGBT equality and are waiting to perform marriages according to their respective faith traditions. Until this bill passes, their religious freedom and the religious freedom of those in their congregations is being denied. This bill also reinforces the religious freedom of those who choose not to perform same-sex marriages nor will it force them to allow their religious facilities to be used for that purpose.
Many of these faith leaders have gone through an evolutionary process on the issue of LGBT equality as more and more members of their congregations come out. At lunch, I had the opportunity to talk with Rev. Julia Melgreen, pastor of Douglas Avenue United Methodist Church in Springfield and one of 300 signers of the letter. She told me that if this bill passed she intended to perform gay marriages even though she would run the risk of being defrocked since her church does not currently recognize marriage equality. Previously she told reporters that her acceptance of same-sex marriage was an evolutionary process, and was clinched, in part, by a young person from her congregation who came out as gay “and was so broken-hearted, wondering if God loved him.”
“(On this issue), I’m going to make a judgment on the side of love and grace,” said Melgreen, noting that the United Methodist denomination voted in 2012 to deny marriage equality.
“I haven’t always been in this place, and I haven’t always been as brave as I should be,” she said.
I could relate. The further back one goes in my timeline the further one would see indifference and also even opposition. For me it has been an evolutionary process as well. How a conservative LDS bishop could become a progressive LGBT ally is something that I can only describe as miraculous. Most of my LDS friends and family have been supportive of this journey in spite of some early shock. Some wondered why I am being so “political”. I am grateful that I began to finally listen and to learn. I am “political” on LGBT issues because I believe in human and civil rights for all of God’s children. I believe that we have been endowed with these rights by our Creator.
I am reminded of our own Mormon history where our civil and human rights were trampled on and we were driven from the State of Missouri under an illegal and immoral executive extermination order by the Governor. I am reminded of the opportunity Joseph Smith had to meet with President Martin Van Buren to seek for political help and support for the Saints in Missouri. The President of the United States is alleged to have said: “Your cause is just, but I can do nothing for you; if I take up for you I shall lose the vote of Missouri“. Many Mormons today view President Van Buren’s lack of political will to stand up for the civil and human rights of Mormons as cowardly and smacking of political opportunism and expediency. I agree with Michael Otterson, church spokesperson when he said: “This Church has felt the bitter sting of persecution and marginalization early in our history, when we were too few in numbers to adequately protect ourselves and when society’s leaders often seemed disinclined to help.”
I am reminded of our history when, having been driven out of Missouri, we were embraced by the city of Quincy, Illinois and given food and shelter. In our Mormon story, Quincy is still fondly remembered and described as a “city of refuge” for the persecuted Saints. Quincy was there for us when we needed them the most. We were strangers and they took us in.
Today we as members of the Church have found our place in the United States and in the world. We are free to worship according to the dictates of our own conscience. Our civil and human rights are respected. However, this is not the case for our LGBT sisters and brothers who find that they are not equal under the law. They find that they can be fired from their jobs and removed from their housing simply because they are gay. With regards to marriage LGBT individuals find themselves being called “unatural” and denied the right to marry. This is reminiscent of marriage rights being denied to those of different races. I share a recent quote from an open letter from Chicago Leaders of the African American community, including the Chicago Urban League, Chicago’s Black Business Network, and others who support Illinois Marriage Equality:
“We remember that not long ago some states defined marriage as limited to people of the same race. We were told marriage between people of different races was ‘unnatural’ and that society would be eroded if marriage changed. The truth is, marriage has evolved throughout history to reflect the needs and progress of society.”
Today the LGBT equality movement continues to gain more and more support. But there are still many who do not have eyes to see or ears to hear how LGBT rights are being denied and how they have been and continue to be persecuted. When I met with my state senator, he said that although he did not speak against the proposed legislation in the senate committee, he would still be voting against it on the floor. He said that it was not “a defining issue” for him. In my mind I could once again hear Martin van Buren’s words to Joseph Smith: “Your cause is just but I can do nothing for you.”
Today I call on my LDS bothers and sisters to examine the stories of LGBT people. I ask you to examine their history as we would want others to examine ours. I ask you to reach out and talk with those who are LGBT in and outside the church and to listen and to try to understand. What you will find is that there is much more that unites us than divides us. What you will find is that their rights are our rights and our rights are their rights. What I hope you will ask yourself is: Am I a Martin Van Buren, or am I a citizen of Quincy Illinois for our LGBT sisters and brothers?