Home > Faith and Spirituality > To support gay rights, Norfolk ministers take a stand at altar

To support gay rights, Norfolk ministers take a stand at altar

The newly arrived ministers at Unitarian Church of Norfolk are happy to officiate over the ceremonies where couples say, “I do.”

But when it comes to signing marriage licenses, the Revs. Phyllis L. Hubbell and John P. Manwell say, “We don’t.”

Manwell and Hubbell support gay marriage, but in Virginia, only heterosexual couples can get a marriage license validating their legal status as spouses. That meant Manwell and Hubbell were able to sign licenses for some couples but not others. So they chose to sign none.

The protest, they said, is worth the inconvenience it will impose on heterosexuals they wed.

Those heterosexual couples will have to, in essence, get married a second time, most likely by a judge or civil official who can sign the license.

“For me, it’s a matter of conscience,” said Hubbell, the daughter and granddaughter of clergy.

Neither Manwell nor Hubbell entered the ministry with a gay rights stance. Both had been attorneys. Hubbell, 65, handled Freedom of Information cases for the U.S. Justice Department. Manwell, 78, was a tax attorney.

As the couple co-pastored various congregations, they were increasingly priv y to congregants’ stories of inequality.

In time, the couple became advocates for gay equality and testified on behalf of gay rights before legislators in Maryland, where they led a church.

About two years ago, both had a stinging epiphany that they were abetting anti-gay bias by signing heterosexual couples’ licenses.

“I realized I was taking part in this discriminatory system, and I don’t have to and don’t want to,” said Manwell, whose grandfather was a minister.

The pair also contend that the law against gay marriage violates the separation of church and state.

“This is the one area as a minister where I act as an agent of the state,” Hubbell said of weddings. It is, she said, “the one act where the state discriminates and won’t let me marry people that my faith and religion says I may marry.”

The plight of couples in love who see marriage as out of reach also tugs at Hubbell.

“I got married at 48. I know about the longing to get married, the excitement of finding someone you’d like to marry,” she said.

The Unitarian Universalist Association is one of the few denominations that support gay marriage and offer civil union ceremonies for same-sex couples. It also ordains non celibate gays and lesbians.

The Unitarian Church of Norfolk opposed Virginia’s constitutional amendment to make marriage legal only between a man and a woman. About a quarter of the congregation is gay or lesbian, and at least 10 percent were signed up to attend a march held Sunday in Washington for gay equality.

Earlier this year, a Baptist minister in Winston-Salem, N.C., and a United Church of Christ pastor in Cleveland, Ohio, also declared they wouldn’t sign licenses. An interdenominational initiative, Refuse to Sign, is urging all ministers to do likewise.

The Rev. Jennifer Ryu, co-minister of Williamsburg Unitarian Universalists church, said she signs licenses for heterosexual couples she weds.

But she also tells them about the lack of gay marriage rights. “As I sign, I tell them, ‘Are you aware you’re privileged in our state – you get to fall in love with the person you chose and be married,’ ” she said.

Karen Forget, vice president of the Unitarian Church of Norfolk, said church leaders knew and approved of the clergy couple’s stand on licenses.

“My sense is that people are very supportive of it and glad to see them taking a stand, and understand why they take this position,” Forget said of the congregation.

The supportive members include Chris Holbein and Angela Conant, who are scheduled to be married by Hubbell and Manwell in a church wedding on May 15. The engaged couple said they both support gay marriage rights.

Holbein said he’ll have to find someone with the authority to sign a license to co-officiate with the ministers at the ceremony.

“That’s an inconvenience we’re more than fine with,” he said. “We completely understand the principled stand they’re taking.”

Manwell and Hubbell’s stand could well have no more than a quixotic impact, Forget acknowledged.

“There’s certainly a question about whether taking this stand will make a difference,” she said. “But isn’t there always that question when you take a stand of personal conscience? You take that stand because you know it’s the right thing to do.”

Steven G. Vegh, (757) 446-2417, steven.vegh@pilotonline.com

To support gay rights, Norfolk ministers take a stand at altar | HamptonRoads.com | PilotOnline.com.

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  1. October 16, 2009 at 10:40 PM

    Love this! WTG!!

    • October 16, 2009 at 11:37 PM

      Don’t they rock? It’s not something that hits the news very often, but I’ve heard of other UU ministers doing the same.

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