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ACLU Marriage Discussion Lays Out Challenges
by MARIE-JO PROULX
2004-06-09

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The American Civil Liberties Union held its Annual Chicago Meeting at the Historical Society June 3. The event was entitled 'Blocking the Way to the Alter' and took the form of a panel discussion moderated by Colleen K. Connell, executive director of the ACLU Illinois.

Panelists were Heather Sawyer of Lambda Legal Defense Fund; State Rep. Larry McKeon; John Knight, Midwest regional attorney for the National ACLU's Lesbian and Gay Rights and AIDS Project; and Rev. Stacey Edwards of Trinity United Church of Christ, Same Gender Loving Ministry.

Connell began by asking why gay marriage has become such an important issue, and why all GLBT people should pay attention. Offering a non-legalistic answer, Sawyer stressed that equal marriage rights are about real individuals, strong families who want to be respected, and children who need to be protected. She said it is time to reflect on what our nation's promise of equality really means and also to realize that the actions taken today will define the world we live in tomorrow.

As Illinois' only openly gay representative, McKeon presented his unique perspective. He expressed his disappointment in his colleagues in the House and Senate, who voted unanimously in favor of the state's own Defense of Marriage Law in the mid 1990s, one year before he was elected himself.

Without giving names, he also mentioned that he does not believe he is the only gay elected official in Springfield. He added that while they may support pro-gay bills, the men and women he has in mind do not sponsor those bills so as not to alienate their conservative constituents. In his estimation, some down-state Democrats are to the right of most Republicans. He counts 14 Illinois districts where representatives may be personally inclined to support equal marriage rights but will not dare do so for fear of being voted out of office.

Looking at the national scene, Connell asked John Knight what the current situation is in Congress and which battles should remain on our radar screen. Knight used the often repeated 'pawn' word and explained how same-sex marriage is being used as a sort of dividing principle among political opponents. Most importantly, he warned that passage of a Federal Marriage Amendment would inevitably be used as a basis for further discriminatory pieces of legislation.

To the question of whether there is any real momentum for such a drastic change to the U.S. Constitution, Heather Sawyer pointed out that if two thirds of the states asked for a Constitutional Convention, the issue would have to be considered and some states are already actively exploring this alternative avenue.

To this McKeon added that in his view the most important fight of the next 12 to 18 months for GLBT people will take place in Washington, D.C. 'If we lose this one, we will be set back 30 years,' he warned. He has made it clear in the past that he believes the national stage is where grassroots activists and the more sophisticated organizations should focus their energy and spend their money.

The role of religious leaders in this social debate was raised by a question from the audience and Connell linked the concern to recent statements made by certain Catholic Bishops regarding politicians, their personal faith, and their voting record. 'If religious institutions are encouraging their followers to support right-wing issues and politicians, should we urge the IRS to revoke their tax-exempt status?' she asked. Rev. Edwards reminded all that ministers and preachers have historically been social leaders who have played a political role. In the 1950s and '60s they prompted their parishioners to rise up non-violently against state-sanctioned racial discrimination.

But Edwards also acknowledged that the Bible has often been used to justify oppression by those who, willingly or not, have interpreted the Scriptures out of context. 'Today,' she continued, 'some religious leaders are having their pockets filled by the [current administration].' Lambda's Sawyer concurred, declaring that faith-based initiatives are especially dangerous.

Looking to the near future, all agreed that the images of gay weddings and couples lining up for marriage licenses that are coming out of San Francisco and Massachusetts should have a beneficial effect. It is hoped that the moving and compelling messages they send will contribute to changing the minds of some elected officials who have so far remained on the fence about the issue of same-sex marriage. But in the meantime, the need for reasoned and sustained efforts to defeat anti-gay measures remains great. According to several of the speakers, it starts by telling your story and educating friends and colleagues


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