Senator John Marty speaks with LGBT Catholics
and their allies about his commitment and efforts
to achieve marriage equality for all Minnesotans
and their allies about his commitment and efforts
to achieve marriage equality for all Minnesotans
By Michael J. Bayly
Last Monday evening, June 22, the Twin Cities-based Catholic Pastoral Committee on Sexual Minorities (CPCSM) hosted its 29th Annual Community Meeting at St. Martin’s Table Restaurant and Bookstore. As executive coordinator of CPCSM I was honored to welcome those in attendance and to introduce our special guest speaker, Minnesota Senator John Marty – who was later awarded CPCSM’s 2009 Bishop Gumbleton Peace and Justice Award.
John Marty, son of Lutheran religious scholar Martin Marty, is a member of the Minnesota Senate, representing Senate District 54. He is also a Minnesota DFL candidate in the upcoming 2010 gubernatorial election. Marty entered politics in 1984 and throughout his successful political life has been a tireless advocate on environmental issues, health care reform, government ethics, and campaign finance reform. As part of his position on the latter, he does not accept soft money contributions or contributions from lobbyists, and he sharply limits the amount of contributions he will accept from any one person. Not surprisingly, Sen. Marty also opposes the public funding of stadiums and professional sports teams. In the area of health care, he is a supporter of the use of medical marijuana, and the chief author of the Minnesota Health Plan, a proposed single, statewide plan that would cover all Minnesotans for all their medical needs.
Of particular interest to the LGBT Catholics and their allies is the fact that in 2008 Sen. Marty co-authored Senate File 3880 (renamed earlier this year Senate File 20), a bill that would provide for gender-neutral marriage laws in Minnesota and thus allow same-gender couples to marry.
At CPCSM’s June 22 Annual Community Meeting, Sen. Marty shared the history and current status of Senate File 20. He also talked about why as a person of faith he supports marriage equality for all.
Sen. Marty began his talk by noting that when he was growing up in the 1960s, he viewed the Catholic Church as a leader of social justice issues. “It was very supportive of anti-war and anti-poverty initiatives and of civil rights for African Americans,” he said. “Unfortunately, somewhere along the line things changed, and it’s difficult to hear today of how Catholics cannot openly talk about sexual orientation or civil rights for LGBT people. It’s almost bizarre when you see what’s happening in the rest of society, where for the first time people are opening up on these issues. People’s attitudes are changing and it’s good to see that happening.”
Recalling the time in 1983 when the first gay rights legislation was introduced by Rep. Karen Clark, Sen. Marty said that there were people who cheered when Clark observed that some opponents of equal rights for gays like to quote scripture to support their view that she as a lesbian shouldn’t have the right to live. “I found that to be really, really sick,” said Marty, who then provided a helpful overview of the subsequent gains that have been made in relation to gay rights in Minnesota.
He notes that in 2006 he began to notice a marked difference in attitudes around the issue of same-gender marriage – even within many faith communities. Then in 2008 he was approached by a gay partnered man and asked if he would introduce a marriage equality bill. Marty’s response was unequivocal: “I’d be glad to,” he told the man, “I’d be honored.”
Marty is adamant that as a civil society we should not ban people from doing something because some people’s religious beliefs say that it’s wrong. “That’s really offensive to me,” he said, “and so I was pleased to draft a bill for marriage equality.”
Although the passing of Prop 8 last November in California was viewed by many marriage equality advocates as a setback, Marty chose to view it as an opportunity to invigorate the movement. At a rally in Minneapolis shortly after the passage of Prop 8, he told the gathered crowd of his belief that “we’ve got to move forward, and we’ve got to move forward now.”
“Words matter,” Marty insists. “My wife and I have been married for over twenty years. We called our commitment ceremony a wedding; we called it a marriage. If you’ve had a commitment ceremony in a church or elsewhere and you think of it as a marriage, then call it that. Don’t worry about what other people say, you call it what you want and define the term. When people use the terminology that matters most to them, then other people’s attitudes are changed.
“I’m actually not that concerned about whether or not we call all government-sanctioned unions ‘civil unions’,” he says, “but we’ve got to use the same terminology for everyone. If someone wants to change marriage [in the civil arena] to union, well, that’s not a fight I care to get involved in. What I object to is different terminology that implies that some types of marriages are less good than others, that says we can’t use the word ‘marriage’ for them. I find that offensive.”
Marty observed that for a long time a lot of people in the LGBT community were saying that they don’t dare use the word “marriage” because it will incite their opponents and because they felt they didn’t have public support. The term “civil unions,” these folks reasoned, might be palatable and thus garner public support.
“The trouble with that argument,” says Sen. Marty, “is that as we discovered over one hundred years ago ‘separate but equal’ doesn’t work. In fact, there’s no such thing as ‘separate but equal,’ and it took sixty years for the Supreme Court to realize how wrong that was and to undo it. There’s no ‘separate but equal’ in racially segregated schools, and there’s no ‘separate but equal’ in having both marriages and civil unions. If you’re going to call them equal, you have to give them the same name. I don’t care what you call them but they’ve got to called the same thing.”
Sen. Marty noted that OutFront Minnesota, the state’s largest LGBT support and lobbying organization, is supportive of his bill and have implemented a 3-5 year strategy to reach out to people around the state and facilitate dialogue. Faith communities will especially be focused upon, a strategy that Marty stressed was key.
“People’s attitudes around this issue have and are changing significantly,” he said. So much so that he sees marriage equality being achieved in Minnesota within three years. “I don’t think that’s unrealistic,” he said. “It’s no longer the uphill battle it was.”
“People change,” he reminded those in attendance at Monday’s CPCSM gathering. “They wake up, and they grow and they learn. The more we take control of the language, and the more we’re not afraid to speak out, the more attitudes change. And they are changing. They’re not changing by the decade anymore, they’re not changing by the year anymore. They’re changing by the month. We’re seeing a really profound difference in attitude. And it’s largely a generational thing. One of my colleagues told me: ‘My parents would never join a church that would marry a same-sex couple; my kids would never join a church that wouldn’t.’ She’s absolutely right about her kids – and, actually, I doubt she’s right about her parents.”
“Church pronouncements don’t change people’s minds,” Marty insists, “it’s folks figuring out that the two people who sit in the pew in front of them at church every Sunday are not friends but partners. That’s what changes people’s minds. Because they know these two guys, they know that they are nice people, that they’re just like us. They’re taxpayers, they work hard, they take care of their home. And the more people come out, the more we have same-sex marriages happening in other states, left and right, the more minds are changed. So I’m convinced that it’s not too far away, and I think three years is a legitimate goal for us in Minnesota. And we can make it happen.”
A Loving and Christian Thing to Do
Toward the end of his talk at CPCSM’s Annual Community Meeting, Sen. Marty shared how his faith encourages him to advocate and support marriage equality. “The Bible I read says that we’re supposed to love each other; that God loves us and cares about us, and created us in His image,” he said. “Making lifelong commitments is something we’re supposed to be proud of. We’re supposed to make commitments to each other. That’s a loving and Christian thing to do. Yes, I can read stuff in the ancient Hebrew law, in Leviticus, that I don’t think people should take as a standard for how to live their lives today, unless that is they want to do all that stoning of everybody that’s prescribed, but then most of them would be stoned as well. We know that that’s all ancient stuff, that in its own context and with the knowledge of that time it made sense. But it doesn’t make sense today.”
During the question-and-answer session that followed Sen. Marty’s talk, he stressed that, “as a politician, it’s not my role to figure out where the churches ought to be on this or that issue. Our bill explicitly says that this law does not mean that any church has to marry a same-sex couple. It also says that the government shouldn’t tell a church who they can and cannot marry.
Responding to a question concerning President Obama and the sense of disappointment and betrayal that many in the LGBT community feel about his administration’s lack of action on gay equality issues, Marty shared the view that “Obama is the new generation,” while at the same time acknowledging the “extreme disappointments” about the president efforts at health care reform, his “timidity on gay marriage,” and the fact that “outrageous things” continue to happen with regards to the military’s “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy. Sen. Marty also observed that Obama’s “step forward last week, when he sort of gave some benefits to same-sex partners” leaves him wondering, “Do we cheer the half-way step or lament the fact that he could have but didn’t go a lot further?”
Another audience member asked about the religious right. Sen. Marty acknowledged that this element remains in American politics and its members are going to be outspoken on the issue of marriage equality. “The best thing to do,” he suggested, “is not to vilify them but to say how we think they’re wrong. Let them go into their little clubhouses and do whatever they want, but just let everybody else have their marriages, have their lives, and have their rights.”
“I believe we ought to have marriage equality,” Sen. Marty reiterated, “and I’m working for that and I think attitudes are changing and a lot of people of faith are understanding it – largely because of groups like CPCSM that are initiating and encouraging dialogue from a faith perspective. And regardless of what some leaders of faith communities choose to say and do, the role of government is to treat people equally.”