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What a freak show: debating democracy and religion at the State House


THURSDAY, FEBRUARY 12, 2004 -- A young man with close-cropped hair and a flowing beard, wearing a brown cassock and sandals with no socks, knelt in prayer amid shouting protesters on the third floor of the State House on Wednesday afternoon. He prayed silently, but his mission was clear enough: to persuade the legislature -- meeting in constitutional convention in the House chamber, just a few dozen yards away -- to pass an amendment that would ban same-sex marriage. A TV cameraman leaned in. Several of us held back so as not to spoil the shot.

This was prayer as performance art. And it illustrated clearly and precisely the dangers of dragging religion -- or, rather, religious dogmatism -- into the debate over the Supreme Judicial Courtís ruling that gay and lesbian couples have the constitutional right to marry. Some religious groups not only oppose gay marriage as religious ritual but also insist on imposing their views on other religious groups and on civil society as a whole. But members of religious denominations that would welcome gay marriage wouldnít dream of forcing, say, Catholic priests to perform same-sex ceremonies. So who, really, is threatening whom?

Later, I caught up with two of the cassock-clad protesters in another part of the State House. I asked if they had been praying on the third floor; they had, although I couldnít be sure if either of them was the man I had seen earlier. They introduced themselves as Father John Sweeney and Brother Felix Mary Waldron, members of the Franciscans of Primitive Observance. Six of them had traveled to Boston that day from New Bedford.

"We came up here at the urging of our bishop, Bishop George Coleman, to be a voice in defense of marriage," Sweeney told me. "We are of the real conviction that the future of civilization passes through the family. Thus the decision of the four judges is an attack against civilization."

I told Sweeney that, a short time earlier, I had talked with the Reverend William Sinkford, president of the Unitarian Universalist Association, who was standing in front of the State House with several hundred other religious demonstrators who favor same-sex marriage. I asked Sweeney if his insistence that the legislature ban marriage didnít amount to a form of religious discrimination.

No, Sweeney replied. "This is a matter of right reason, not religious denomination," he said. "The truth is available to anyone who has right reason." Sweeney was, I realized, quoting directly from Church doctrine, including last summerís Vatican statement opposing same-sex marriage (see "Rome Casts Its Ballot," News and Features, August 8), which holds that its opposition to homosexuality is based on "natural law" as much as it is on religion. Itís a cute intellectual trick: citing non-religious reasons so that you can impose your religious views on people of other religions, or none. And I had no doubt that Sweeney believed what he was saying utterly and sincerely.

Yet what, other than adherence to dogma, could make Sweeney so sure that he was right and Sinkford was wrong? Not long after arriving on Beacon Hill, Iíd found Sinkford surrounded by a sea of religious pro-marriage demonstrators from several denominations. The Unitarian Universalist Association headquarters, which is next to the State House, was festooned with a huge banner that read "Civil Marriage Is a Civil Right," with two rainbow flags hanging vertically from above.

"Itís important for us to bear witness" and "let them know there are religious voices that affirm the power of love," Sinkford told me. "We believe strongly that there is a real difference between sacramental marriage and civil marriage" -- and that the latter is "a civil right that the commonwealth should protect." Sinkford, who is African-American, also invoked the vision of equality put forth by the Reverend Martin Luther King. Though Sinkfordís pro-marriage position is in keeping with the longstanding policy of the liberal denomination that he heads, it has also put him at odds with many African-American ministers in Greater Boston who have publicly stated their opposition to gay marriage. "I must say that I donít understand their position, although I do believe the position is taken in good faith," Sinkford said.

Moving among the pro-marriage religious demonstrators was Kevin OíToole, who was holding what was easily the most provocative sign of the day: "My Pedophile Priest Supports Traditional Marriage." OíToole, who lives in Stoneham, lost a brother, Bill, to AIDS. Bill, the OíToole family believes, had been sexually molested by the notorious Father Paul Shanley. When I asked OíToole why he had come to the demonstration, he replied, "Well, Iím a gay man, number one." And he expressed anger and disgust at the Catholic Church for fighting against same-sex marriage, asking, "Why would they think they have any moral standing left in this country?"

They donít, given the Churchís pathetically inadequate response -- only recently improving -- to the massive pedophile-priest scandal. Which is why, I suppose, I find myself shaking my head at the Franciscans. If John Sweeney doesnít think men should marry men, well, then, he definitely shouldnít marry one. As the great political philosopher Jon Stewart has observed, making gay marriage legal doesnít make it mandatory.

The protests outside the State House had a rote quality to them. "Let the people marry!" shouted one side. "Let the people vote!" shouted the other. There were a few amusing signs ("Gov. Mitt George Wallace Romney," "Give Me Bridal Registry or Give Me Death," and, on the other side, "Adam & Steve = 0 People; Adam & Eve = 6 Billion People"), and a few funny moments, as when the driver of a Harpoon Brewery truck tentatively beeped his horn to the sign "Honk If You Like Rainbows" (a huge cheer went up). But I wanted to see what was going on inside. And, frankly, to get warm.

Just before 2 p.m., while waiting to go through security, I struck up a conversation with some students from Suffolk University Students for Peace and Justice. Their goal was to roam the corridors and strike up conversations with legislators, urging them to vote against any amendments that would ban same-sex marriage. It turned out that we were too late: the legislators had already convened in the House chamber. The real lobbying, we were told, had taken place the day before.

We found ourselves stuck on the third floor, where protesters on both sides -- but mainly from the anti-amendment side -- where shouting and chanting for the benefit of the media gallery, which had been set up right outside the chamber. It was nearly impossible to hear. Two of the Suffolk students, Jack Hamm and John DíAgosta, hung back on the periphery, with Hamm managing to get into an argument with some guy named Mike, who was carrying a sign calling homosexuality "Godís curse."

"Itís not acceptable that weíre still willing to fight to subjugate one group of people," Hamm told me, shouting to be heard above the din. "This is only a step away from saying black people have to sit at the back of the bus again. Itís a very small step, and it starts right here." DíAgosta, taking a more pragmatic view, added, "I believe in people having the right to do whatever they want as long as it doesnít harm anyone else. Period."

It wasnít long before I had occasion to think about Hammís comparison of the fight for gay marriage with the civil-rights struggle. Iíd stopped by the Great Hall, where hundreds of people, mainly pro-marriage (the anti-marriage forces, I was told, had gathered in Gardner Auditorium), were watching the proceedings on four large projection TV sets. State Senator Dianne Wilkerson, a Roxbury Democrat, was at the podium. Wilkerson talked about growing up black in Arkansas, her home state, and about the fact that many black people have names ending in "son" because that signifies who their ancestorsí masters were in slavery days. Jefferson, she said. Johnson. Pause. Wilkerson.

Wilkerson was fighting back tears at this point. When she regained her composure, she told her colleagues that she would vote against any amendment to ban or restrict marriage rights, saying that civil rights should never be decided by a popular vote. "I know the pain of being less than equal, and I cannot and will not impose that status on anyone else," she said. Then she started telling some family history, began crying again, and a hush fell over the room. "Love you, Dianne!" a voice called out at her televised image. Wilkerson quickly wrapped up, and the room burst into loud applause, with many giving her a standing ovation.

Issue Date: February 12, 2004
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