The lights of local TV cameras seeking gay-on-the-street sound-bites illuminated the darker part of Broadway on the Upper West Side where thousands of people marched the other night chanting, “Gay, straight, black, white, marriage is a civil right.”
I was one of them, upset and disillusioned that a right could be so easily eliminated for an entire group of people that included me. Sure, New York has never allowed same-sex marriage. But it was a right granted in California until a simple majority of voters decided that gay relationships weren’t equal to their own.
I joined up with the march in progress at West 66th Street, in front of Manhattan’s Mormon Temple. The spot was significant because California’s constitutional amendment was bankrolled largely by the Mormon Church, which urged its members nationwide to donate tens of millions of dollars to stop gay couples and their families from receiving the same legal recognition and protections everyone else enjoys.
“Two-four-six-eight, separate church and state,” the crowd shouted.
I couldn’t agree more. Working for the American Civil Liberties Union, I know this concept is what allows America to be America — we may not be each other’s cup of tea in our beliefs and actions, but somehow we have to find a way for a variety of kettles to peacefully share the stove.
But some of the protest signs were especially ugly and demeaning to the Mormon faith. One sign made fun of the protective, spiritual undergarments worn by Mormon men: “Keep your holy undies out of our business!”
I chuckled. But it bothered me to consider doing to the Mormons what they did to me — and they did pay for some disgusting and deceitful TV ads in their campaign to eliminate my rights. As a civil liberties advocate, I should follow Voltaire’s notion of defending the rights of those I disagree with.
News crews from the New York media market seemed to have a TV camera and correspondent at every block, interviewing marchers. I wondered what I would say if stopped. I realized that I would have to say that I’m not protesting the right of Mormons to believe or say that gay unions are wrong and sinful. The First Amendment guarantees them the right to decide who they deem worthy of membership and marriage in their church. It also lets them preach what they want, even at our front doors.
What I was protesting was the obliteration of that delicate tea-cup-and-kettle system I like to envision as the church-state balance. I thought about divorce. Mormons detest it. Yet the state allows it and some 50 percent of straight couples do it. And still, Mormon families seemingly flourish in spite of it. Why the need to ban gay unions if there isn’t a need to eliminate the right of divorced people to marry? Why can’t gay couples get a marriage license at city hall and just not be allowed to marry in a Mormon temple? There’s precedent for it. Catholics, Muslims and Jews aren’t allowed to marry in Mormon temples, but they still all sign the same state-issued marriage certificate before going off to have their own ceremonies in a place of worship that welcomes them. Can’t gay couples be treated the same?
As I marched past the Mormon temple toward Columbus Circle, I could understand why so many of the protesters were directing their anger at the church. We are not a Mormon nation, as much as we are not a Baptist or Pentecostal nation. So it is painful when any religion forces all of us to live their way by altering the Constitution upon which all our laws are based. But when this initial sting of anger passes, I hope we can use the rights of speech and assembly still afforded to us in the Constitution to win back the fundamental right of marriage we lost in California, and have yet to gain in other states. And that means not trying to destroy the rights of Mormons or anyone else who wants to believe our relationships are less than theirs.
In the marketplace of ideas, the best idea will win. So far in our nation’s history, despite long odds and terrible setbacks, equality has been a winning idea. We don’t need to bash Mormons to prove that gay couples deserve equal treatment by the state. What Mormons believe is up to them and maybe they’ll change (they did finally allow African-Americans to become full members in 1978) and maybe they won’t. There will always be disparate kettles trying to share space on the American stove.
What we can do is a better job of crying foul the next time a group tries to upset the church-state balance. We can also make our case with a more diverse audience. After all, there isn’t a racial, cultural or religious tea party that doesn’t have gay attendees. Mormons included.
(This essay was originally posted by Engardio on the ACLU blog It is republished with the author’s permission.)
Joel P. Engardio is a writer, documentary filmmaker and civil liberties advocate. His work has appeared in the Los Angeles Times, San Francisco Chronicle, USA Today and on NPR and PBS. Engardio directed the award-winning PBS film KNOCKING about Jehovah’s Witnesses. He currently helps the American Civil Liberties Union communicate its message and issues through online video.