It was an inspirational call to arms. "You who lead the church in Massachusetts have a unique role in the history of America. The whole world will be looking at this state in a few weeks," the Rev. H.B. London, of Focus on the Family, told the crowd of pastors.
The gathering at Tremont Temple in downtown Boston on Tuesday - one of five across the state this week - aimed to mobilize clergy for the battle to save traditional marriage. In November, the state's highest court became the first US court to declare that prohibiting same-sex marriage was unconstitutional, sending shock waves across the country. But now the state legislature is poised to meet on Feb. 11 to decide whether to set in motion a constitutional amendment affirming marriage as only between a man and a woman.
With the prospect of momentous, far-reaching change, Massachusetts clergy are lining up on both sides of the battle: While Colorado-based Focus on the Family has joined with the Massachusetts Family Institute (MFI) to energize conservative pastors, the Religious Coalition for the Freedom to Marry has marshaled 400 progressive clergy behind the court and in opposition to the amendment.
The conservatives are part of a new, broader Coalition for Marriage, including some 25 organizations. Today, they can point to growing public support for their stand - in the state and the nation.
At a rally at the State House after the pastors' meeting, Ron Crews, MFI president, released a new Zogby International poll of Massachusetts voters, showing that 69 percent want to vote on a state constitutional amendment, and 52 percent agreeing that only marriage between a man and a woman should be legal in the US. A recent New York Times/CBS poll found that 61 percent of Americans oppose legalizing same-gender marriage and 55 percent favor an amendment to the US Constitution.
"The more people focus on the issue of homosexual marriage, the more they become concerned about its long-term effects on family and society," Dr. Crews said.
At the pastors' meeting, participants emphasized the import of marriage as a building block of societies and a crucial element in the healthy growth of children.
"Marriage is more than a contract or a love relationship between two people - it is where the basic divide in society is worked on to create unity and harmony," said Bishop Gilbert Thompson, of the New Covenant Christian Center in Mattapan. "This [court] decision would destroy a road map that children need."
"It's not right that the state should ignore the research evidence that children do much better with both a mother and a father," said Tom Minnery, of Focus on the Family.
Clergy took pains to emphasize they were not against gays and lesbians having privacy or benefits.
"We're not trying to legislate what people do behind closed doors," Mr. Thompson added. "But don't call it marriage." Of those polled by Zogby, 73 percent said same-gender couples could provide for each other through private arrangements already allowed under the law.
Those on the other side say marriage has been evolving throughout history.
"It's not that God set up something that never changes," says the Very Rev. Jep Streit, dean of the Cathedral Church of St. Paul in Boston. "People used to say God wanted men to have many wives, or God didn't want white people to marry black people." He sees God as behind this change.
Members of the Religious Coalition for the Freedom to Marry have signed a declaration that relates this issue to the essential right of human beings to "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness."
Their declaration states: "From the shameful history of slavery in America, the injustice of forbidding people to marry is evident as a denial of basic human rights."
At the same time, Bishop Thompson takes issue with those who would equate the prohibition of same-sex marriage to that of interracial marriage. "This is not a civil rights issue," he insists. "Skin color has nothing to do with marriage, while gender is at its very core."
The state supreme court gave the legislature only 180 days to follow through on the court decision. But proponents of the marriage amendment are pressing the case that a question of such significance, the people must decide, not unelected judges. To amend the state's constitution, the legislature must approve it two years in a row, and then it would go to popular vote in 2006. While the constitutional convention is scheduled for Feb. 11, legislators do have the entire year to vote.
"Citizens know better than courts what is best for families," Crews says.
Yet others point to different historical lessons. "I lived in Alabama in the 1960s when the civil rights legislation was passed, and where I lived, everyone was clear this was a bad idea," says Dr. Streit.
For the next month, pastors in both groups are urged to pray vigorously, encourage their flocks to study resources available on the issue, and write or visit legislators.
But some also worry about creating divisions. "We don't need to polarize people over this," says the Rev. Stephen Donahue, of Christ Community Church in Neponset. Strongly in favor of marriage just between a man and woman, he also feels "we need to show God's love for all."