New Hampshire church issues marriage licenses to gay couples
December 31 2003 12:00 AM ET
To promote the legalization of same-sex marriage, the pastors at South Church in Portsmouth, N.H., plan to sign marriage licenses for gay and lesbian couples they wed and mail them to City Hall for approval. Following a practice accepted in the Unitarian Universalist faith, the church has performed marriage ceremonies for gay and lesbian couples for more than 15 years, even though the unions are not recognized by law. The move departs from a more rebellious approach taken by other Unitarian Universalist ministries. Parishes as far away as California and as close as Exeter, N.H., have refused to marry straight couples until same-sex marriages are recognized by law. The Reverend Will Saunders said that protest, while admirable, is not the best way to effect change. A marriage strike, he said, has the potential to "anger heterosexuals who just want to marry."
New Hampshire law mandates that city workers reject marriage licenses presented to them by same-sex couples, according to deputy city clerk Chris Maxwell. "We would have to send them away, just following the state statute," Maxwell told the Portsmouth Herald. "I'd give them a copy of the law, and that's, unfortunately, all I can do." The news that City Hall would not accept the licenses did not dissuade Saunders from his cause: "That doesn't surprise me at all. We'll send them anyway. This is a religious ceremony, and its validity, in my judgment, doesn't have to do with City Hall. What [city clerks] do is their business. I would hope they would at least keep them and not throw them out."
Saunders said that he and his wife, the Reverend Marta Flanagan, will address the issue from the pulpit on January 11. The church advises same-sex couples to hire a lawyer to ensure that they get all the legal privileges available, which are significantly fewer than those granted to straight couples. The next gay or lesbian couple to schedule a wedding at South Church, he said, can fill out the new certificate designed from the template used for heterosexual couples. Last fall the Reverend Kendra Ford, of the First Unitarian Society of Exeter, announced that while she will continue to perform ceremonies for both straight and same-sex couples, she will sign marriage certificates for neither until marriages of all couples are recognized by law. Julia Rodriguez, a South Church parishioner from Durham, said different congregations must choose how strong to make their statement. "What we're seeing now is a tension between taking a gradual or more rapid approach to change," Rodriguez said. "Do we speak out, or do we disrupt?"