Panel: Religious support is key to same-sex marriage victory

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More Americans of faith can be swayed to support civil marriage for same-sex couples, according to a group of clergy and scholars meeting in San Francisco last week.

The panel discussion took place at the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Community Center in San Francisco, sponsored by the Horizons Foundation, which raises money for LGBT causes, and the Washington, D.C.-based Interfaith Alliance.

“The only major Christian denomination to [support same-sex civil marriage] is the United Church of Christ, and this silence and absence of others creates a tremendous problem for the rest of us,” said the Rev. Dr. Welton Gaddy, president of the Interfaith Alliance and a Southern Baptist minister, who moderated the discussion.

“We will not win the legal battle until we can gain support from those people who support our rights even if they don’t support our actions.”

Gaddy has distanced himself from the leadership of the Southern Baptist mainstream over the years, as he has emerged as a proponent of LGBT rights.

The program was called “Moving the Religious Middle on Marriage Equality,” and the first of two panels featured several clergy members on the topic of same-sex civil marriage.

One question Gaddy posed to the panelists was whether people’s beliefs about homosexuality are influenced by what the Bible has to say about it.

Rabbi Jack Moline said yes, they are. But noting that in the Jewish tradition each biblical verse can be interpreted any number of ways, he said, “The Bible does not exist to form our values, it exists to help inform the values we already have.”

Moline is a Conservative rabbi who is the spiritual leader of Congregation Agudas Achim in Alexandria, Va., and a board member of the Interfaith Alliance.

Even “Love thy neighbor as thyself” can have multiple interpretations, said the rabbi, depending on whether or not that neighbor is Jewish, living in your community, or a number of other factors.

“No verse has a plain meaning that has no interpretation whatsoever,” he said.

Mary Tolbert, executive director of the Berkeley-based Center for Lesbian and Gay Studies in Religion and Ministry, sat in at the last minute for Imam W. Mahdi Bray, director of the Muslim American Society, who could not appear due to his mother’s illness.

Tolbert told how her career as a biblical scholar could be foreseen at age 9, when a friend of hers told her that the Bible proves that women can smoke.

Quoting from the Bible, her friend said: “Rachel lit upon on her Camel.” Tolbert added, “You can prove just about anything you want from the Bible if you are creative enough.”

The Rev. Leonard Jackson, the former associate minister at the First African Methodist Episcopal Church in Los Angeles and director emeritus of the Interfaith Alliance, said that the Bible has been used to justify many wrongdoings.

“Scripture has been used as a smokescreen for centuries, to justify slavery,” he said. It is often used to condone bigotry, disregarding the central message of “Love thy neighbor as thyself.”

When asked about a federal amendment that would define marriage between a man and a woman, Jackson expressed his frustration with it, stating that “Rather than try and define that, we need to define what marriage is, and look at the high divorce rate.”

Moline said that many of those who are against same-sex marriage are so because they see it as akin to the sexual mores that were so pervasive in the ’60s.

“They see [homosexuality] as sexual permissiveness, rather than being an orientation,” he said, then admitted, “I’m not sure how to get past that.”

Moline further told the crowd that people of faith needed to be spoken to in religious language, and that LGBT people should join faith communities if they are not already part of one.

With the likes of Israel and Darfur competing for their attention, he said, the average Jew is already concerned with multiple issues, and may not think of LGBT rights as much of a pressing problem.

“Join [a] congregation,” he said. “That’s a great way to reach people.”

The discussion was cosponsored by Congregation Sha’ar Zahav of San Francisco and the S.F.-based Jewish Community Federation’s LGBT Alliance.

Alix Wall
Alix Wall

Alix Wall is a contributing editor to J. She is also the founder of the Illuminoshi: The Not-So-Secret Society of Bay Area Jewish Food Professionals and is writer/producer of a documentary-in-progress called "The Lonely Child."