In the State House

Today was the third anniversary of the court decision that affirmed the right of same-sex couples to marry under the constitution of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. The Religious Coalition for the Freedom to Marry (RCFM) decided to hold a little ceremony at the State House in Boston. For the past ten years, RCFM has been gathering signatures on a declaration for same-sex marriage rights (the Massachusetts Delaration of Religious Support for the Freedom of Same-Gender Couples To Marry), asking clergypersons and representatives from congregations to sign. Over the past few months, RCFM made a big push and got a total of 999 signatures; they saved the one thousandth signature for today’s ceremony.

I got to the State House at a couple of minutes before eleven. I remembered to leave my pocket knife at home, so I got through the metal detectors quickly. Then I headed up to Nurses Hall (dedicated to Civil War Nurses from Massachusetts), which was pretty nearly full of RCFM supporters. Massachusetts being the kind of place it is, I looked around for people I knew. Across the crowd, the Unitarian Universalist minister in Medford caught my eye and waved. I made my way through the crowd to chat. Hank was there with Adam, the Unitarian Universalist minister from Natick, and John, an Episcopal priest, and David from the Unitarian Universalist Assocation. Hank and Adam both looked very Bostonian — Hank in a dark pinstripe suit with a white shirt and a red tie, Adam looking very natty in a seersucker sport coat and khakis.

“Hank, I’ve gotta hand it to you,” I said. “You’re standing on the correct side of the cameras” — a few videocameras on tripods faced a lectern — “and you’re wearing a power tie.” Hank grew up in the state and went to U Mass Amherst, which also means he probably knows half the people working in the State House.

Adam and Hank told me they would have to leave a little early. “We’re going to the annual meeting of the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel to the Indians,” Adam said. “You’re kidding,” I said, “that’s still in existence?” They informed me that the Society, founded in the Colonial era, still disburses money from their endowment to good causes, particularly to Native Americans in the state.

Then the RCFM speakers began. The original signers of the Declaration were recognized; the outgoing director of RCFM spoke; the incoming director spoke; a rabbi (whose name I missed) had us all say “Mazel tov!” to celebrate three years of same-sex marriage; and then Deval Patrick appeared unexpectedly.

Patrick briefly spoke to us, talking about the importance of protecting civil rights. “If we had voted on Brown vs. Board of Education,” he said, “Board of Education would have won, given the sentiments of the time.” Patrick was accompanied by House Speaker Sal DiMasi, who spoke about the importance of leaving the state constitution unchanged so we can maintain the right of same-sex marriage. And then Senate President Therese Murray came down the steps from her office, and she spoke, too. “I heard all the noise, and I couldn’t get any work done,” she said, “so I thought I’d better come down.”

(Patrick, Di Masi, and Murray do not look like politicians, they actually look like real people. You can tell Patrick comes from the wealthy Boston suburbs — wearing and immaculate suit and gorgeous yellow silk tie, he speaks standard College-Educated English. Sal Di Masi, representing Third Suffolk (i.e., Boston), is a classic Boston politician, a product of Boston College and Suffolk University Law School who speaks with a good solid Boston accent. Therese Murray represents southeastern Massachusetts, far from the centers of power in Boston’s suburbs — she looked like an ordinary working person, slightly rumpled from sitting at a desk, some roots showing. Compared to the interchangeable, indistinguishable white-men-in-dark-suits of the Republican presidential debate, these three Massachusetts politicians looked like human beings instead of Muppets.)

Oh, and somewhere in between the unexpected appearance of politicians, the the Right Reverend Gayle Harris of the Episcopal Diocese of Massachusetts became the one thousandth signer of the Declaration. Having her was the one thousandth signer was a powerful statement in a number of subtle ways. First and foremost, Episcopalians in Massachusetts still include many of the wealthiest, most powerful people and families — so they’re definitely not some tiny powerless minority group, religiously and politically. Then there’s all the fuss the worldwide Anglican communion is having over same-sex marriage, there’s some risk in what Ms. Harris did. Then there’s the fact that Ms. Harris is African American, which helps remind us that this is a civil rights issue. It didn’t hurt that Ms. Harris is a powerful speaker — someday, I’d love to go hear her preach.

By this point, the whole event was hopelessly behind schedule. Adam and Hank slipped out at ten minutes to noon, when half the scheduled speakers hadn’t yet spoken. We heard some speakers from the United Church of Christ (UCC) and Unitarian Universalist (UU) speakers. RCFM probably has more UCC and UU ministers and congregations than any other denomination (but I have to admit that the oratorical abilities of the UCC and UU ministers were not up to the level of the other clergy who spoke). The camera crews left as soon as the politicians left, and now the reporters and still photographers started to leave as well. I had only allotted an hour in my schedule for this event, so I slipped out at two minutes to noon.