Tax-Exempt Churches Lead Opposition In Partnership Debate by Stephanie Hughes (September 1996)

“If homosexuals are allowed to marry, then they will be allowed to adopt children, and then they will molest them.”

Welcome to Santa Clara County, California, home to San Jose and “Silicon Valley,” where an over-capacity crowd recently met in the county supervisor chambers to voice reaction to a proposed ordinance creating a county registry in which two adults could declare a domestic partnership.

Symbolic and voluntary, the registry would provide an opportunity for any two adults to publicly profess their mutual commitment, without conferring any special rights or privileges, such as medical benefits or permission to visit a partner, as a family member, in the hospital. Those initiating or terminating domestic partnerships would pay an administrative fee, so the registry would pay for itself.

More than 2,000 people packed into the county building and the audio-wired outside patio in August. Religious right activists clutched pale blue flyers reading “Defend Family Values.” Ordinance supporters carried hot pink flyers announcing “I Support the Domestic Partnership Registry.” A few pragmatic ordinance supporters, seeing a relationship between the two phrases, taped the two flyers together to create a single slogan.

With hundreds of people in line to speak, the Board limited each speaker to a one-minute soapbox. Registry opponents were almost exclusively members and preachers of conservative Christian churches (who, as tax-exempt organizations, did not pay their entrance fee to this political event).

Earlier that week, fifty-six Christian organizations banded together to submit a full page ad in the Sunday San Jose Mercury News, implying that heterosexual marriages would crumble due to this ordinance, using the visual metaphor of a crumbling wedding cake. “We support the biological family as the foundation of society as God ordained it to be. This special place of marriage should not be undercut by State recognition of homosexual and live-in relationships.”

Registry supporters were far more diverse, politically and socially, using a Humanist approach, which Joseph C. Sommer, an Ohio Foundation member, has defined as “reliance on human observation, experience, logic, and empathy, rather than a blind acceptance of religious dogma.” There were gays, lesbians, and bisexuals; heterosexual dads, moms, siblings, and friends of homosexuals; religious leaders, and interracial marriage supporters from the 1960s. Activists for the disabled and elderly, including representatives from the Older Women’s League, described the importance of the ordinance to nongay members of society. Other speakers used their brief podium time to reiterate that the United States is a democracy, not a theocracy.

In spite of thoughtful testimony by many ordinance supporters, the presence of Christians tended to dominate and manipulate the debate. A distinct undercurrent was which side was more Christian and really had Jesus Christ on their side. Ordinance supporters were prone to prefacing their pro-ordinance comments with “I, too, am a Christian.” Others asserted that Jesus would support tolerance to all members of the community and an affirmation of all relationships. A male pastor declared that “I believe God made me bisexual.” Unitarian, Presbyterian and Council of Churches representatives supported the ordinance, proclaiming their pride in being part of a community that refused to be paralyzed by fear.

Meanwhile, a fundamentalist had the audacity to claim that “the Bible tells us that everyone has an innate sense that God exists.” Although many speakers were undoubtedly freethinkers, humanists, and atheists, I did not hear these words in any of their self-portrayals. Ironic, given that our gay and lesbian friends spent that evening out of the closet.

Someone shouted, “homosexuals seek power over every aspect of our lives.” Others quoted antihomosexual Bible verses, such as Leviticus 18:22.

Fundamentalists proclaimed the singular importance of God’s intention for married couples to procreate. Numerous evangelicals linked homosexuality with pedophilia. “What will stop pedophiles? This will open the door.” Another asserted that the ordinance “will allow the recruitment of a captive audience too young to defend themselves.” In a breath of fresh air, a registry supporter used her 60-second spot to remind the pious spectators of the disproportionate frequency of black-collar crimes against children. Another supporter defended the rights of gay couples to adopt and raise children. “If a homosexual couple adopts one (unwanted) child, they are helping to fix a problem that we heterosexuals created.”

More than five and a half hours after the meeting began, a few minutes after midnight, the Board members cast their ballots, voting unanimously, 5-0, in favor of the ordinance.

Although the ordinance is scheduled to go into effect on September 20, this story is not over. The religious right activists are planning an anti-registry referendum. Amid boos, Supervisor Ron Gonzales warned ordinance opponents that he felt a referendum would be harmful to the community: “We are likely to have a divisive and hotly debated campaign. . . I believe the social cost will outweigh the social benefit.” A similar situation occurred in Santa Clara County about 16 years ago, when voters overturned a county ordinance to ban discrimination based on sexual orientation.

Numerous local companies have domestic partnership benefit programs, including Apple Computer, Microsoft, Levi Strauss, Stanford University, Viacom, Silicon Graphics, Borland International, and Lotus Development. Seattle, Washington and several California municipalities have domestic partnership programs, including Alameda, Santa Cruz, San Francisco, Berkeley, Laguna Beach, and West Hollywood.

As a pro-choice feminist who is delighted when lesbians and gays help defend women’s health clinics, I will continue to return the favor by defending the ordinance and advocating for gay rights. As one speaker reminded us, “None of us is free until all of us are free.”

Stephanie Hughes, a Foundation member, is a freelance writer and environmental consultant in San Jose, California. In spite of a Jehovah’s Witness limb of the family tree, she is an atheist and second-generation freethinker. She thanks Humanist Paula Rochelle for teaching her several Dan Barker songs and introducing her to the Freedom From Religion Foundation back in 1993 when they were defending a women’s health clinic from Operation Rescue.

Freedom From Religion Foundation