In 2003, the head of New York's largest gay-rights group, the Empire State Pride Agenda, had a realization. If gays were the only people who cared about gay rights, they would lose. "In Albany, who do legislators listen to?" Alan van Capelle asked his fellow activists at a dinner at the Sheraton in Manhattan. "Corporations, labor unions, and people of faith. If we can win their support, we can win the issue."
Out of this epiphany came three campaigns, dubbed "Pride in My Workplace," "Pride in Our Union," and "Pride in the Pulpit." Van Capelle, a former labor organizer, set out to build "an army of unusual allies." The pulpit campaign began with a single organizer who rounded up a handful of supportive clergymembers. They crisscrossed the state talking to priests, pastors, and laypeople. "Somewhere in your congregation, there is a parent of a child who's just come out, looking to be comforted," they told them. "There's a gay or lesbian kid struggling with their identity and looking for leadership." To many clergy, it rang true. Even when clergy members weren't receptive, the activists went to the congregations, drawing support from the rank and file.
By the end of the campaign, they counted 800 congregations and 1,000 clergy on their side, including the Episcopal bishop of Rochester. A lobbying delegation to the legislature in 2005 included two priests, complete with vestments and crosses around their necks. As legislators inched toward supporting same-sex marriage, these religious activists were there to provide cover, whether they hailed from a white district upstate or a Hispanic district in the Bronx. "We felt like we were doing something radical at the time -- using faith as a tool not only to move our agenda but also to begin to heal a very wounded community," van Capelle said recently.
Gay marriage passed in New York in July of 2011. Van Capelle now heads a Jewish social-justice group called Bend the Arc that focuses on domestic issues. (American Jews are by far the most supportive religious group of gay marriage: 81 percent are in favor, a greater proportion even than the 76 percent of nonreligious Americans who support it.) His 2007 commitment ceremony was attended by then-Governor David Paterson, a drag queen DJ, a rabbi, a priest, and a nun.
"Our job now is to take the lessons we learned to congregations in other parts of the country that are looking to win the right to marry," van Capelle said. "I hope the larger progressive community is beginning to understand that we need people of faith for all of our struggles. Once they are organized, they are an incredibly powerful force for change."
Other gay-rights campaigners have come to the same conclusion. All four of the successful state campaigns for gay-marriage ballot measures last fall -- Maryland, Maine, Minnesota, and Washington -- had dedicated organizers working in the faith community. Often they were greeted, like van Capelle, by an outpouring of pent-up support. Campaigners who invited faith leaders to an organizing meeting in Minneapolis in 2011 were stunned when the turnout of 700 more than tripled their expectations, packing a Methodist church and spilling out the doors. By the end, the campaign had the support of all six of the state's Lutheran bishops.