Last month, the Connecticut Supreme Court confirmed the dignity and equality of its lesbian and gay residents by lifting the ban on same-sex couples marrying in their state.
Amid bleak economic news and heated political campaigns, this landmark decision didn’t get much attention here in Maine. And, indeed, it may seem that decisions from a Connecticut court will have no effect here. While to the strict letter of the law this is true, the Connecticut court’s message is one we should all take to heart.
The court did something rather extraordinary in its ruling. It didn’t just say that gay and lesbian people should not be barred from marrying the person they love. The court also strongly rejected the idea of relegating same-sex couples to a separate, unequal relationship status. The equal protection guaranteed by the state constitution, Justice Richard Palmer wrote in the majority opinion, “leads inevitably to the conclusion that gay persons are entitled to marry the otherwise qualified same-sex partner of their choice. To decide otherwise would require us to apply one set of constitutional principles to gay persons and another to all others.”
The Connecticut state Legislature in 2005 enacted a law establishing “civil unions,” a form of legal recognition for same-sex relationships just short of marriage. Although those in favor of civil unions argued that they gave couples all the rights and benefits of marriage, time did not bear that out. Much like domestic partnerships here in Maine, civil unions do not offer the rights and protections of marriage. They don’t offer the dignity and respect that marriage brings to relationships.
As a pastor in Bangor, I have performed holy unions for three long-time, monogamous couples. And while the ceremonies were occasions of great joy for each of them, there was still the clear, disappointing reality that these were not weddings but “the next best thing.”
On our journey toward justice and equality here in Maine, the Connecticut decision obliges us to pause to take measure of our beliefs and values. If we support equal rights for all people, then in good faith we cannot deny gays and lesbians and their families the legal right to marry. If we want same-sex couples and their children to be protected with the same rights, dignity and respect as married couples, then we cannot ask them to accept anything less than marriage. We can’t ask them to settle for “separate and unequal.”
I expect that the Connecticut decision will generate lively conversations in homes, in offices, and in statehouses across the nation. For those of us in Maine who care deeply about providing equal benefits and protections to everyone, it is time to step up and engage in this conversation.
It is not just a political discussion. It’s not just about public policy, and it’s not just about faith. It’s about real families. It’s about visiting your spouse in the hospital instead of your “domestic partner.” It’s about parents telling their kids that they’re married — just like their friends’ parents. It’s about having a wedding photo in your parents’ living room next to your siblings’ wedding photos.
It’s about our shared humanity, and it’s about equality.
The eight couples that filed the Connecticut lawsuit have been in committed relationships from 10 to 33 years. They are electricians, counselors, and teachers. They are caretakers and cancer survivors. They are raising children and caring for aging parents. In Maine, there are thousands of similar same-sex couples who are deeply committed to each other, raising families, working in their communities and churches. And like same-sex couples in Connecticut and Massachusetts, which lifted the ban on marriage for gay and lesbian couples in 2003, they want to be part of this community of equals.
Let’s welcome them in.
The Rev. Mark Allen Doty is the senior pastor of Hammond Street Congregational Church, United Church of Christ, in Bangor.