The Meaning of the Message Hits Home

Julia Burke

On July 24, 2011, my home state of New York became the sixth—and by far the largest—state to legalize same-sex marriage. The historic bill, called the Marriage Equality Act, was approved by a 33–29 vote in the State Senate amid a whirlwind of drama. After passing the State Assembly (as it did in 2007 and 2009) on June 15, it languished for over a week in the Republican-controlled Senate as representatives debated other issues.

During the week of June 20, the state capitol became a center of tension as citizens who supported equality flooded Albany, the state capital, demanding a vote. Opponents, mostly from the religious Right, also thronged the capital, demanding that the bill be thrown out. My Center for Inquiry (CFI) colleagues and I followed the story closely, calling and e-mailing our local senators (one of whom, Senator Mark Grisanti, would ultimately become a deciding Republican vote in favor of the bill) to voice our support. As I read headline after headline about the large number of antigay protestors swarming the capitol building, I began to feel very far from the action at my desk in Amherst, New York.

On Tuesday, June 21, I decided to go to Albany to show my support for the bill. What made up my mind? It was this quote, on the New York Daily News website, from Archbishop Timothy Dolan, the Catholic Church’s top authority in New York: “Not every desire, urge, want, or chic cause is automatically a ‘right.’”

I realized two things:

  • There should be no doubt in anyone’s mind that legalizing gay marriage is a church and state issue.
  • People like Dolan believe that marriage equality affects only a small, “militant” minority. They are wrong.

Our senators needed to see that marriage equality is a civil rights issue. It affects all of us. It affects my own view of marriage as a repugnant institution as long as it remains discriminatory and exclusive. Evan Wolfson of the pro-equality organization Freedom to Marry pointed out in the Washington Blade that were the bill to pass, “the number of Americans living in a state where gay people share in the freedom to marry” would increase “from 16 to 35 million,” and our historically progressive state might well be seen as a leader in the movement to bring marriage equality to the entire country.

I spent Wednesday night with my eyes glued to the Senate live stream, watching officials discuss various other bills, take rules-committee breaks, adjourn for meals, discuss more bills, and completely avoid the Marriage Equality bill. At 9:30 P.M., when it became clear that there would be no vote that night, I realized that no matter what else was going on in my life or what it would take to get there, I had business in Albany.

Buzzed with the energy of purpose, excitement, and adventure, I was up at 4 A.M. and in Albany by 10:30, searching for parking amid the beautiful government buildings in the center of the city. Darting through torrential downpours toward the doors of the capitol, I wondered what lay in store inside.

Through a security checkpoint and up three flights of an incredibly ostentatious staircase, I turned a corner and heard . . . church music! A sea of swaying, solemn, white sign-holding folks droned “Amazing Grace,” their melancholy tone an appropriate accompaniment to their appalling protest signs: “God Defined Marriage”; “One Man, One Woman”; “God’s Word Is Truth”; and, more puzzling: “God Votes!” My favorite was “Corn Is Not a Vegetable—Stop Redefining Things!”

Fortunately, “our people” were around the corner, and the contrast between the two groups was laughably stark. Marriage equality supporters were diverse in age, ethnicity, and background. Better yet, they were upbeat, friendly, positive, and incredibly generous, with the impressive turnout of Human Rights Campaign (HRC) volunteers providing a wide assortment of snacks and plentiful water to the supporters. Meanwhile, the anti-equality protestors were exclusively Judeo-Christian right-wingers. They were predominantly middle-age or elderly (though a few brought small children, treating us to the especially poignant and disturbing image of a ten-year-old displaying hate speech). Most of all, they were angry. We were told not to engage them at all, ensuring a positive image in the media for our side—and really, they did a fine job of validating our cause on their own. The completely religious and bigoted basis for their position was blatant.

I was doing fine with the “Don’t engage” rule until a woman approached me and asked what we thought “equality” meant. I began to explain that marriage as a legal institution really has nothing to do with the religious institution of marriage, but I quickly realized that she was in no mental state to consider anything but her own talking points. An HRC volunteer came over and stood next to me for support, and I forced myself to stand there silently without reaction and listen to this woman insist that marrying someone of the same sex is the same thing as marrying your dog. It was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done in my life, and when she left I was actually shaking. I realized I needed a new strategy, and from then on when one of the protestors tried to talk to me, I just grinned, blew a kiss, and continued with my own chanting or singing. It helped a little, but at one point I did break my own rule.

I was standing right in front of the doors of the Senate chamber with a group holding a large “Marriage Equality” banner and singing. In our midst were two especially obnoxious anti-gay folks. One was holding a Bible and a sign about Jesus loving us (but not enough to accept LGBT individuals, apparently), announcing over and over, “There’s only one way. I’ll pray for all of you. Jesus loves you.” The other was a mostly silent man, standing inappropriately close to me to the point of being threatening. He was holding a sign with some sort of triangle diagram that was supposed to explain why God is present only in heterosexual marriages.

Finally I couldn’t take it anymore and got into an altercation with him. “This”—I pointed to the sign, which had a verse from Ephesians on the back—“doesn’t belong here. God doesn’t belong here. This is not your church.”

He responded, “God is the answer,” and I lost it.

“This is my country. This is my state. Your God does not belong in this building,” I declared. Eye contact with another equality supporter reminded me to get it together, and I turned away from him before he could respond. Did it feel good? For a moment, sure, but I was on the wrong side of an avalanche of realization: These people made no distinction between the state capitol and their church. They felt a perfect sense of entitlement to demand that the government legislate their bigoted religious views into law. They saw no problem with standing outside the doors of the Senate holding a Bible and demanding that their state continue withholding civil rights from an entire community because their God hates gays. I was truly stunned.

I honestly felt sorry for some of the protestors, many of whom were obviously raised in an environment of intolerance. A particularly memorable individual was a middle-aged man carrying a sign that read, “God heals all homosexuals—He healed me.” As disgusted as I was by the sentiment, I pitied him for landing in the wrong community and thus being taught to deny his identity. I tried to remind myself that his life was probably a living hell and that he deserved love and tolerance. Unfortunately, he lost my goodwill almost immediately. An African-American administrative staff member, who had been working hard to keep us orderly and from impeding normal building activities, at one point walked down the hall with a large garbage can. It was obviously not her normal job, and she
joked to a cameraman, “You better not take a picture of me pushing this thing!” The scared-straight protestor fired back in mocking dialect, “Times gettin’ hard, sista?” We all stared at him, speechless. Somehow he didn’t seem to deserve the benefit of the doubt anymore.

As horrifying as it was to experience so much hatred and bigotry, my interactions with fellow equality supporters were inspiring and uplifting across the board. The folks who should’ve been angry, who were on the receiving end of discrimination, were extremely positive, and I found myself making new friends with every conversation. One young man responded to the “Corn Is Not a Vegetable” chant by quipping, “I am not a vegetable—I am a fruit!”

I was particularly impressed by a group of three young girls, about college-freshman age, who were obviously new to the “rally” thing. They stood behind us holding their signs and chanting rather hesitantly. I waved them up front and encouraged them to help us hold the giant banner in front of the Senate chamber, and we introduced ourselves. Even at their tender ages, they had given serious thought to their beliefs and attitudes and were extremely impressive young women. I told them about the Center for Inquiry; one responded, “You can do that? For a job?” I told them about CFI On Campus and they were excited to learn of the programs available. At one point, I left the area to sit in the Senate office itself, and when I came back hours later, the girls were on the frontlines shouting with all their might and firing right back at the gang of Tea Partiers surrounding them. One caught my eye and grinned.

I’m still pretty new to the CFI mission. For a long time now, I’ve believed that the separation of church and state must be protected from the constant barrage of fire unleashed by the religious Right. But only when I began working here did I realize just how incredibly important this movement is. Talking to my brilliant and passionate coworkers has opened my eyes to the many issues and opinions that make up this community. And on Thursday, while we stood at the Senate Chamber doors singing “We Shall Overcome” and letting the hatred all around us roll off our skin like oil on water, I learned something about myself: I cannot accept this worldview that not only propagates but seeks to legislate hatred. I don’t “respect their beliefs without agreeing with them.” I can’t. I won’t. That worldview is incompatible with a functional and free society, and I cannot allow it in my country.

Separation of church and state isn’t a matter of pluralism or celebrating “interfaith collaboration.” It’s about justice and truth, and the American people had damn well better see some. I know I will remember that day for the rest of my life as the day I began seeing my role in the secular movement clearly. Before, I saw this new world mainly as a wealth of ideas and knowledge. Now I realize it’s also a fight, and I’m in it.

Further Reading

Glenn Blain and Kenneth Lovett. “NY’s Top Catholic Officials Seek to Halt Senate Vote on Legalizing Gay Marriage.” New York Daily News, June 14, 2011. Available online at

Phil Reese. “Advocates See New York as a Turning Point in Marriage Equality Effort.” Washington Blade, June 27, 2011. Available online at

Julia Burke

Julia Burke is an assistant editor at Free Inquiry and Skeptical Inquirer magazines and the managing editor of The American Rationalist.

On July 24, 2011, my home state of New York became the sixth—and by far the largest—state to legalize same-sex marriage. The historic bill, called the Marriage Equality Act, was approved by a 33–29 vote in the State Senate amid a whirlwind of drama. After passing the State Assembly (as it did in 2007 and …

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