I do Secaucus parish priest plays key role in same-sex marriage debate

Mark Lewis, the vicar of the Episcopal church of Our Savior in Secaucus, wants to get one thing straight.

“Please don’t call it gay marriage,” he said. “It’s just marriage.”

That comment crystallizes what Lewis has been fighting for for over four years. He was one of 13 plaintiffs in a case that was decided before the state Supreme Court on Oct. 25. The court decision on the case, by circumstance named after Lewis (Lewis vs. Harris), ruled that homosexuals are constitutionally entitled to all of the rights that heterosexuals receive through civil marriage.

However, the court stopped short of bestowing the title of “marriage” on these rights. In a 4-3 decision, the court voted to expand gay rights regarding marriage, but stated that only the state legislature can grant the status of the actual term. In their decision, the justices mandated that the legislature has 180 days to revise New Jersey’s 1912 marriage laws, either by giving same-sex couples all the benefits of marriage under the rubric of civil unions, or by making New Jersey the first state in the nation to recognize same-sex marriage by legislative action.

What’s in a name?

Lewis, 46, who has been in a committed relationship with Dennis Winslow, 56, for almost 15 years, stands firmly on the side of the second option.

“The decision is both subtle and elegant,” he said. “The justices were extraordinarily powerful in their statement that the New Jersey state constitution guarantees every couple and every family the same rights afforded to what has been considered traditionally married couples. The court sent the final remedy back to the legislature, but they must come up with a constitutional solution. The constitution has always said that separate is inherently unequal. If the legislature wants to comply with the court’s ruling, I can’t see what else they can do but grant full marriage equality. To come up with some sort of hyper-complicated situation to avoid using the dreaded “m-word” is incredibly convoluted. To name it anything but marriage is only maintains that this is lesser or different from marriage. I don’t think that complies with the court’s ruling. The name matters entirely.”

To further underline his point, Lewis pointed to another issue at the forefront of American political debate: immigration.

“How outraged would we be if the U.S. government said that all immigrants coming to this country can apply for full citizenship benefits, but they may not call themselves Americans? That would enrage the country. Show me a married person who would happily trade in their marriage for a civil union.”

Local support

In terms of his Secaucus parish community’s support for his legal struggle, Lewis feels blessed.

“I couldn’t possibly have done this without the full support of my parishioners,” he said. “I haven’t had one unkind word spoken to me. In Hudson County, we are used to diversity for generations. A lot of people have had a lot of hard knocks around here, and they know discrimination when they see it.”

Sitting nearby in their Union City condo, Lewis’s partner Winslow, who serves as a priest at St. Peter’s Episcopal Church in Manhattan, noted an interesting phenomenon in his vocation.

“People who come to me to get married know in our very first interview that I’m gay and in a relationship,” he said. “And after each ceremony that I do, Mark and I are invited to attend the wedding reception as a couple. Nobody says ‘He’s gay. What could he know about marriage?'”

Lewis confirms his partner’s experiences.

“In my job, I talk to people about their marriage problems,” he said. “They know that I know what goes on in a marriage, even though I guess I don’t know because I’m not in one,” he said with a wry smile.

Martha Story has been a parishioner at Our Savior for 12 years, around the same amount of time that Lewis has served there. She has seen Lewis at work.

“Mark and Dennis co-officiated at my own wedding five years ago,” she said. “I’m 100 percent supportive of what he’s doing. There is no reason not to grant same-sex couples the exact same rights as heterosexual couples have. As far as I’m concerned, they are married. They’ve been together longer than my husband and I.”

Story has a law degree, and looked at the issue from a legal perspective.

“I’m obviously religious, but what’s being sought in this case has nothing to do with religious marriage,’ she said. “It’s about civil marriage. Legally speaking, when the government is involved in an action such as granting a marriage license, they can’t be religious. We are talking about practicalities. In New Jersey, it’s long been the case that gay couples can adopt and live as families. There is no reason not to have the exact same bundle of rights and privileges granted to either heterosexual or homosexual couples. To quibble about the word marriage and try to call it something else doesn’t make any sense to me.”

What it all means

The practical realities of marriage have become a preoccupation for Lewis as the case continues.

“There are hundreds of rights, privileges, protections, obligations and responsibilities that are handed to you with a marriage license,” he said. “When we began this case, we didn’t think that we would talk about sickness and death as much as we do. The list of things that would change is long.”

If New Jersey were to recognize same-sex marriage in the legislature, Trenton would set a precedent. Vermont and Connecticut have given same-sex couples all of the benefits of marriage, but call it civil union. Massachusetts has recognized same-sex marriage, but did so through a court decision.

No matter how long it takes, Lewis is resolved to keep fighting.

“We will keep working for full marriage equality,” he said.

As a priest, Lewis sees his struggle in the wider context of his spiritual life.

“I don’t know how I could be a vibrant, 21st century Christian if I did not try to follow Jesus’ example of social activism and justice for everybody,” he said. “That’s what Jesus is about. It’s not all about signing hymns. It’s about changing the world so that the kingdom of God looks real on the ground. That’s how I am a Christian, and I don’t want to be any other way. So from here, it’s on to the next thing. As my friend and mentor, the retired Episcopal Bishop of Newark, John Spong, taught me over the years, once people become agitated about an issue, and it has to be explained and debated in the public forum, it’s already over.”

Asked why he even got involved in the case, Lewis looked homeward.

“When I talked to my mother shortly after the suit was filed, her first reaction was why does it have to be me,” he said. “My answer to her was that it was all her fault. She raised me not to be someone who when given an opportunity to fight for rights that I would enjoy lets somebody else fight for them. The way of equality is the American way.”


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