Opinion & Blogs » Back Page

Justice for All


The final arguments from the attorneys for the plaintiff and the state have already been heard. All that remains is for the members of the court to engage in their own deliberations, to vote and to announce their decision.

This case was filed more than three years ago by seven gay and lesbian couples of New Jersey, who have been living in faithful, committed and loving partnerships that range from 13 to 34 years in duration. They are asking for the state to recognize their relationships as marriages and to sanction them, thus giving them the same rights and privileges enjoyed by heterosexual couples, including equal benefits under the tax codes, full spousal coverage in insurance programs, and equal visitation rights and authority in all circumstances of sickness, accidents and death.

It has been my privilege to know two of these seven couples quite well. I respect their integrity; I honor their partnerships.

I am encouraged about the prospects for this case. The questions asked by the justices during final arguments seemed to me to offer sufficient reason to anticipate a positive outcome.

This case has been in the legal process since 2002, winding its way step by step to this last stop with the Supreme Court. The time for a decision has come.

This issue is a deeply personal one for me. I grew up as homophobic as anyone I know. It was healthy, whole and indeed wonderful gay and lesbian people who by the beauty and integrity of their lives forced me to reassess and finally to abandon my ill-informed prejudices. On the day that I retired as the bishop of Newark, I had 35 openly gay and lesbian clergy serving churches in my diocese. Thirty-one of those clergy lived with their partners, once again quite openly. Our diocesan convention supported the issues brought to us by our homosexual members with huge majority votes. Gay and lesbian clergy were elected by this convention time after time to the highest offices a diocese can bestow upon a priest.

Never once in my 24-year career as a bishop did I have a complaint about sexual misconduct on the part of any of our gay or lesbian clergy. I cannot make that statement about our heterosexual clergy.

Our stance as a diocese also brought tremendous numbers of gay and lesbian lay people out of their closets of fear. I no longer believe it's possible for any part of the institutional church to claim to be "the body of Christ" if it is not open to all of the variations that exist in the human family. For me that is not being liberal; it is simply being Christian.

It was poignant to me that, during the closing arguments before the New Jersey Supreme Court, a member of one of the seven filing couples told the justices that it was her hope that she and her partner "could get married before our children do." I join them in that hope.

The arguments against gay marriage are to me so strange — revealing, as they do, deep levels of irrationality. The state of New Jersey, in the defendant role in this case, has argued that marriage is by definition between one man and one woman, and those who support the Virginia amendment use the same argument. However, there were times in American history when that was not all it took. It was not until 1967 that the Supreme Court of the United States ruled that all state laws prohibiting racially mixed marriage were invalid. There were also times in history when the words one man and one woman did not imply equality because the woman did not enjoy the same rights in that marriage as the man.

Now the state of New Jersey and supporters of the marriage amendment in Virginia are actually arguing that gay marriage will somehow compromise this historically already compromised institution. This defense is an example of how entrenched interests always grasp at irrational straws to buttress their dying prejudices.

The executive director of the League of American Families, John Tomicki, opposing the petition of these couples, said before the proceedings, "We hope the court will resist the temptation to legislate from the bench." That is a tired argument and was used to try to stop the Supreme Court from both declaring segregation illegal and supporting the rights of women to equal treatment. Legislating is an interesting code word. New Jersey's Assistant Attorney General Patrick De Almeida took the same line in his closing statement, basing his entire case on the argument that this is an issue that should be decided not by the courts but by the legislature. Since when, I wonder, have basic human rights been granted by the vote of the legislature, rather than by the guarantee of the Constitution?

What this argument seems to be based on is the hope that there is sufficient homophobia still existing to defeat equality for homosexual people through a legislative process. If that is true, then no person would ever be safe from the tyranny of the majority. This pitiful argument is a tacit admission that justice for gay and lesbian people is right, but it might not yet be sufficiently popular to be passed by a vote in the legislature. If inequality before the law is the plight or the reality of any citizen, then the court must act to remove the barrier. It is my hope that the people of Virginia believe the same and will vote to defeat the marriage amendment. S

John Shelby Spong was rector of St. Paul's Episcopal Church in Richmond from 1969 until 1976, when he became bishop coadjutor of Newark, succeeding as diocesan in 1978. He retired in 2000.

Opinions expressed on the Back Page are those of the writer and not necessarily those of Style Weekly.


Add a comment