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Black Minister Speaks Out For Same-Sex Marriage

Audio

Aired 5/4/10

Proponents of same-sex marriage fell short of the required signatures to get a measure on the November ballot that would reverse the current ban. We'll talk with a black Southern California pastor about his decision to not perform any marriages until all people have the equal right to marry in California.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH (Host): I'm Maureen Cavanaugh, and you're listening to These Days on KPBS. The group Restore Equality 2010 announced it failed in its effort to get the number of signatures needed to try to overturn Proposition 8 on this November’s ballot. But most California gay rights groups were not involved in this signature collecting effort. They've set their sights on the 2012 election, hoping a larger turnout of voters will be more likely to overturn Prop 8, which banned same-sex marriage in California. Ironically, Prop 8 was approved in the last big turnout election. Returns indicate that many minority voters who cast their ballots for Barack Obama in 2008 also voted against gay marriage. One prominent black clergyman, well-known in San Diego, is now speaking out in favor of same- sex marriage. And he's maintaining a special boycott until Prop 8 is overturned. I’d like to welcome my guest. The Reverend Dr. Art Cribbs is pastor of San Marino Congregational United Church of Christ. He is the former pastor of the Christian Fellowship Congregational Church in San Diego. Reverend Cribbs, welcome to These Days.

REVEREND ART CRIBBS (Pastor, San Marino Congregational United Church of Christ): Maureen, good morning, and it’s great to be with you.

CAVANAUGH: Well, this boycott involves you performing marriages. You say you won’t marry anyone until all people have the right to marry. Why did you decide that?

REVEREND CRIBBS: You know, it was one of the most painful decisions I’ve ever made in my life, literally. I realized after listening to people tell me how painful it has been for them to be targeted and then segregated against, I figured out what can I do personally? I had to think about ways in which my colleagues have dealt with this. Many have said we will perform blessings, we will perform the ceremony but we will not sign the marriage license. And I thought that’s very instructive but is it enough? And upon deep prayer, discernment, conversations, referring and consulting with members of my congregation, I finally publicly announced that I would not perform any weddings in the state of California until Proposition 8 is overturned. It is now about a year since making that public announcement and it has really caused me an opportunity to think about that deeply, to sense is it helpful or not? And it’s about the best I can do and retain a sense of integrity, a sense of ethical commitment when it comes to making a decision that stands in solidarity with people who said this passage of Proposition 8 hurts me personally.

CAVANAUGH: I want to go deeper into your thinking about this in a moment but first I want to find out back in 2008, where did you stand on Proposition 8?

REVEREND CRIBBS: I absolutely opposed it. I opposed it for the same reason that I stand with immigrants in this era of anti-immigration legislation, as we’ve seen in Arizona, Proposition 187, as we’ve seen in this state, Proposition 209 in the past. Acts against persons, acts that places a group of people in a category that discriminates, that says somehow you’re different from the rest of us positions me to stand against any activity that would single out a group of people because of who they are in this modern era. So I was always against Proposition 8. I spoke out against it publicly. In fact, I offered, rather audaciously, a public apology on behalf of straight people in America who have shown disdain toward people who are other than straight, if you would. I believe that we have practiced discrimination with what seems to be immunity for a long time and so Proposition 8 only takes that even further. Now I heard you say that people of color voted against Proposition 8 as they voted for Barack Obama. What is very interesting is that it was about 57%, which was the same number of people who identify themselves as Christians, as church-going Christians. That number lines up almost equally with the number of people of color who voted in favor of Proposition 8.

CAVANAUGH: And I wonder, so, therefore, when you came out and you said, yeah, I do not support this proposition, how in line was that with the – with your parishioners?

REVEREND CRIBBS: With my congregation, it was very much in line. I’m a member of the United Church of Christ, as you’ve indicated, and our church, nationally—and let me just be clear because I don’t want people calling up saying I’m in the United Church of Christ and I disagree with you—we’re a church that allows for the range of thought, theologically, socially, politically. We’re not monolithic. However, at our national level, we are an open and affirming church. We’re open to all persons, regardless of race, creed, gender, sexual identity, nationality, we’re open to all persons. And so the congregation in which I serve is an open and affirming church. That is a designation within the United Church of Christ that says we’re open to persons who are gay, lesbian, transgender, bisexual. We will ordain them. We will place them as pastors. Turns out that I’m straight, I’m married, I have children, I’m very much in love with my wife. I do not have a lover or anyone else in my life, don’t plan to. Yet I do believe that it is important for us to affirm people who love each other. I believe it is important to support persons who have identified that soulmate, fallen in love and say with some semblance of certainty this is the person who is in my life for life, and I will be faithful to this person. I will love this person in sickness and in health, in good times, in bad, and I commit myself to that person. We have to affirm that. And so members of my congregation also understand that. There were some who said, well, look, you’re our pastor. Will you marry our children? And I had to say to them I will refer them. I will counsel them, I will stand with them as their pastor but I cannot under the circumstances imposed upon the people in the state of California perform a wedding ceremony when others are denied that right and that privilege.

CAVANAUGH: I am speaking with the Reverend Dr. Art Cribbs. He’s pastor of San Marino Congregational United Church of Christ. He’s the former pastor of the Christian Fellowship Congregational Church here in San Diego. You know, Reverend Cribbs, as you say, many – you see Proposition 8 as a fundamental civil rights issue.

REVEREND CRIBBS: It is.

CAVANAUGH: But many people did not, many African Americans did not see that. Why do you think that is?

REVEREND CRIBBS: I think it’s a matter of how we understand the framing of the question that was put before the people of California. First of all, the reason is before the State Supreme Court again to determine whether or not it is constitutional is because it does harm. The Constitution of the United States, the Constitution of the State of California, is a sacred document to protect the civil liberties of all residents in this state. It is a document that is intended to provide for mobility and freedom and liberties to exist and be protected. And so the question is by putting this language, this discriminatory language, into the state Constitution, the question is have we violated the intent of the Constitution? Now I’m not a legalist, I’m not a lawyer, I’m not an attorney, but I do believe as an ethicist that any time we use a document that is intended to enlarge the rights and protect the rights and then put discriminatory language into that document, that is a violation. In my opinion, it is unconstitutional. It’s up to the State Supreme Court to determine that and, hopefully, in the month of June they will render its decision. However, when it comes to persons who have fallen in love and say to themselves, between themselves, this is the person who completes me, who fulfills my life’s dreams, who am I to stand and say no to them? We’ve had in this country laws that prohibited people from being married because of race and, thankfully, it took a long time but by 1967 we said that’s unconstitutional. It’s a violation of one’s civil rights. I don’t think the question that was placed on the ballot in November, 2008, was framed as a constitutional question. There were lies that were put out there publicly. There were persons who said they were attorneys and professors of law who basically misrepresented the question before the people of California. There were scare tactics, to say that if your children go to school they will somehow be harmed. If you live in a, let’s call it a traditional or classical family, somehow your life will be threatened. All of these images and conversations were produced and projected publicly and they were lies. Those lies were not adequately challenged. I think some of us who opposed Proposition 8 really felt that the very brilliant people in our state would see through the lies but they kept coming, and they came with great force and with great clarity and with great graphics but I believe people were simply sucked into it. And then finally to the degree that this Proposition 8 had some voice within religious communities, I think many people trust their religious leaders. And for whatever reason, the question on the ballot was not raised. There were a lot of things that were said in pulpits across the state of California that have had absolutely nothing to do with the question on the ballot. They began to move to how people understand their own sexuality, perhaps their fears, their incompletion, or how they have been taught to think about their own sexuality, and using the Bible and selecting specific quotes from the Bible to justify discrimination against persons who somehow did not comply with a particular image. And that came from pulpits, also helped to move people in a direction that ended up violating the civil rights of members of our state and harming the persons in our homes, in our congregations, in our communities and in our state. Yes, it’s a violation of civil rights and I stand against that.

CAVANAUGH: Let’s stay with the idea of what the Christian religion says about homosexuality for a minute or two because as a minister you’re in a unique position here. You talk about the ethics of Proposition 8 which, you know, you claim big civil rights violation. However, many Christians are opposed to same-sex marriage because they believe that the Bible condemns homosexuality. So I’m wondering, how do you interpret that? Where do you get your Christian foundation for your feeling in opposition of Proposition 8?

REVEREND CRIBBS: The Bible instructs us on many issues and concerns. On the issue of homosexuality, I’d like to separate one thing, first of all, Maureen.

CAVANAUGH: Certainly.

REVEREND CRIBBS: And that is, I want to separate sexuality, whether it’s heterosexuality, homosexuality, transexuality, from marriage because if we’re going to go down a line of thought that says sex and marriage are joined, then we need to take another look at a lot of marriages where, as a counselor, I can tell you just because people are in a marriage does not mean they’re having sex. Or do we want sex police coming into our homes, into our bedrooms, to determine if we’re having, quote, proper sex? And you must remember, in American history we’ve had such things. Sodomy laws were put in place with the ideal that people would be checking up on each other in private moments, in tender moments of their lives, to see if those laws are violated. Do we really want to go back to that? So, you know, I think, first of all, we have to separate sex from marriage. And if anyone is really honest with themselves who’ve been in a marriage for any length of time, they know that those two do not necessarily go together, so why make that a criteria when it comes to marriage equality if we’re not prepared to do that in our marriages in our own private situations. That’s one. Now, in terms of what the Bible has to say, the Bible says a lot of things and about sexuality, whether you’re quoting Paul or if you’re looking at some of the Levitical or Mosaic writings, it has a lot to say. And if we follow it carefully, that means we should not be eating shrimp, we should not be eating lobster. There are a lot of things that we should not do that are abominations in terms of Levitical law. And yet we do that, and we’re not shutting down seafood restaurants, we’ve not hauling in lobster catchers and shrimp catchers and say, this is an abomination, therefore, don’t do that. And if you eat this, it’s an abomination, therefore, don’t eat this. I don’t hear us saying that with the same kind of energy. In the writings of Paul, Paul talks about a range of sexual conduct, fornication. We do have in the big ten, adultery in which, you know, we can look at that carefully and the Bible has a lot to say about adultery and yet we don’t hear that. We’re hearing it in the news mostly out of National Enquirer and those kind of scandalous rags but we, as a society, do not go into people’s homes, into people’s lives and begin to prosecute them or persecute them or identify, ostracize, scandalize them in those areas in which the Bible is very clear and very specific. The Bible also tells us this: Do unto others as you would want others to do unto you. Treat people the way you want to be treated. The Bible says be an open community to the alien, to the immigrant, to the stranger, and receive that person into your community as a member of your community. The Bible also says do not harm others. The Bible tells us do not kill, very clearly, do not kill. Do not covenant. Do not desire what does not belong to you. The Bible is very clear about these things. Now, I believe that if we’re going to use the Bible as a basis to discriminate against a group of people then we need to be very careful about that. First of all, what was the context in which those writings were presented? What was the context with Paul’s writings in the Epistles? What was the context with the Mosaic writings in the Torah? How did these issues come to the fore? What was the behavior that raised that? Now, in the 21st century, we have learned a lot about human sexuality. Those who were proponents of Proposition 8 said marriage is to be defined between a man and a woman. Well, how do you define a woman? How do you define a man? In terms of what we have learned about human sexuality, human biology, gender identification, it is not as simple as male and female without further definition of what that means if we’re going to use that as a justification for the determination who can and who cannot get married.

CAVANAUGH: Reverend Cribbs, you told us in the beginning of our conversation that coming to the decision that you made, that you would not perform any marriages until Proposition H was – 8, I’m sorry, was overturned, did you think perhaps – It was a difficult decision for you. Did you think perhaps in a way that you were letting down your congregation in a way by making that decision?

REVEREND CRIBBS: I did not make that decision without first consulting with members of my church. And it was about six weeks in which we communicate – I communicated with them, my contemplation, it was a difficult decision. I discussed it with my wife. I discussed it with my sisters, members of my family. And at the point of deciding, it was after the Supreme Court had ruled on the specific language pertaining to is it a revision of the state Constitution or amendment to the state Constitution. I was in San Francisco for those Supreme Court hearings. I was there hoping that the court would rule differently. But given the narrowness of the question, the court had to rule the way it did because the question was so narrow. So realizing that the State Supreme Court was not protecting all the citizens of the state of California, realizing that as an ordained minister vested by the State of California to perform weddings in this state, I had to raise the question within myself prayerfully, raise the question in consultation with my congregation, my family, close friends, and realize when people sit across the table from you and they are in tears because they are personally hurt, their lives are directly and personally affected, I cannot, in good conscience – Let’s talk about the Bible again, Exodus III, where God says I know my people’s suffering. I have heard my people and in response to my people, I anoint you, commission you, Moses, to go back to that place from which you fled to tell Pharaoh, let my people go because I know they’re suffering. I cannot, in good conscience, as a human being, as an ordained member of the church, listen to someone say this hurts me, this violates my personhood. I am in pain and suffering because of this legislation, this law. It hurts me personally. And walk away from that and say it doesn’t matter. When someone says this hurts me, we have to listen with clarity and we have to respond in a way that is compassionate, and that’s what moved me to say as long as Proposition 8 stands in the state of California, I cannot and I will not perform weddings in this state.

CAVANAUGH: Reverend Cribbs, thank you so much for speaking with us today.

REVEREND CRIBBS: Thank you.

CAVANAUGH: I’ve been speaking with Reverend Dr. Art Cribbs, pastor of San Marino Congregational United Church of San Diego (sic). He used to be a pastor down here at the Christian Fellowship Congregational Church in San Diego. You’re listening to These Days on KPBS.

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