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ELLEN GOODMAN

Faith, the Fourth, and gay marriage

IT'S JUST days before the wedding, and Dorothy Austin is on her cellphone trying to track down a Dixieland band to lead the procession from Harvard's Memorial Church to the Lowell House yard.

The odds of finding a band for the Fourth of July are getting longer by the minute. But they are nothing compared to the odds against marriage that she and Diana Eck faced 28 years ago when they first met.

Now the table in Lowell House, the student residence where this pair have been co-masters for nearly a decade, is covered with place cards. As she moves the cards in search of the perfect seating arrangement for 400 guests, Diana laughs, "We're the brides, the mothers of the brides, and the wedding planners rolled into one."

Dorothy was in her car on Nov. 18 when Diana called and said, "The court just ruled in our favor. We can get married." "We never thought we'd see this in our lifetime," they both say. So it's no wonder that this couple chose the Fourth of July for their wedding date and planned to end the ceremony singing "my country 'tis of thee, sweet land of liberty."

Same-sex wedding bells have been ringing all over this state since they became legal on May 18. They enrage some Americans and engage others in celebrations. Yet there's been a shared assumption that this debate pits the more devout against the less devout, the religious against the secular.

But the wedding of these two women challenges this accepted divide. You see, Dorothy Austin, 60, is an ordained Episcopal priest and associate minister of Harvard's Memorial Church. Diana Eck, 58, is a professor of comparative religion and head of the Pluralism Project at Harvard who has spent her life exploring what religious diversity means for American democracy.

These two women are deeply -- and also widely -- religious. And neither is willing to cede faith to the religious right.

In many ways their marriage is part of a long trajectory of social changes around both their work and love. When Dorothy, whose mother was a mill worker in Fall River, was young, her vocation was closed to women. When Diana came east from Montana to Smith College, she didn't think of becoming a professor as much as marrying a professor.

Having come this far, they are very aware of how controversial their marriage still is. The Sunday after their wedding has been designated as "Protect Marriage Sunday" by the religious right. Sometime during the week of July 12, a constitutional amendment banning same sex marriage will come before the US Senate with an endorsement of the Conference of Catholic Bishops and the Southern Baptist Convention. Meanwhile, Jerry Falwell has sent out missives telling preachers to "lift up the God-ordained institution of marriage in their ceremonies" by fighting same-sex marriage.

Both women, minister and religious scholar, emphasize that the Massachusetts court gave gay couples the right to a "civil marriage," not a "sacred marriage." Indeed, says Diana, in the most religiously diverse nation in the world "it's important we get that distinction right."

But at the same time, they have a very different view of religion itself than does the religious right. "Our religious traditions," Diana Eck has written, "are dynamic not static, changing not fixed, more like rivers than monuments."

To this pair, America is not just a country where church and state are separate. It's a country in which many faiths flourish and must coexist. And while some faiths reject same-sex marriage, others are ready to bless them.

For people of faith, same-sex marriage presents "the whole issue of how we cope with difference" says Diana, who acknowledges that "thoughtful religious people of every denomination have struggled with this.

"My work is thinking about religious difference and whether we'll be able to work and live creatively with it. Religion is not something that should be divisive, to create ever more fractures in a society. Religions can work at bridge-building and connections."

For her part as an Episcopal priest, Dorothy adds, "We shouldn't relinquish the religious tools to the right." She then breaks into the language of her ministry: "This is a moment of prophecy -- of mercy, justice, love, comfort. We need religious traditions and the people in them."

So, before the Dixieland band -- if they find one -- plays, there will be readings from both Corinthians and the Massachusetts decision. There will be three ministers on the pulpit, and friends from enough religions to form their own pluralism project will fill the church.

In the background there will also be the ecumenical words of Dorothy's late grandmother, who blessed their union decades ago when she said: "Them that mind don't matter, and them that matter won't mind." Amen.

Ellen Goodman's e-mail address is ellengoodman @globe.com. 

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