Reverend preaches marriage equality

Alyse Nelson
Features Editor

At the root of a silent protest that sparked a lot of conversation, the Reverend Jeff Byrd was simply standing up for what he believed to be right.
Crosses adorn the wall of his office – not a shock when stepping into the office of a reverend.
The surprise comes when your eyes settle on the handwritten posters beside the desk. Both lettered in a rainbow of permanent marker, one reads “One Christian for Marriage Equality” and the other, “Love is Love.”
Rev. Byrd, at St. Mark’s Episcopal Church in Troy for almost 10 years, proudly explains that his teenage daughter made them for him.
“This is not a religious issue, this is a civil rights issue,” he said.
In February, Rev. Byrd spent several days in front of the Pike County Courthouse holding these signs.
“I was celebrating at my church because come Monday morning more people would have the dignity that they deserve,” Rev. Byrd said of the Sunday before same-sex marriage was legalized.
“And then Judge Roy Moore told the probate judges that they didn’t have to follow the law,” he said. “Of course I was furious, and that’s the right word.
“Angry. Indignant. Disgusted. Embarrassed. Embarrassed once again to be in the state of Alabama and to have officials that make the folks in Alabama look so backward. That’s a mean way to say it, but that’s the truth.”
Though the decision to do a silent protest was made quickly in the wake of the law’s turnover, it was not one that Rev. Byrd acted on thoughtlessly.
“I have a serious responsibility to reflect the values of my national church,” he said, noting the lack of local knowledge concerning the Episcopal church.
“I was afraid to go down there,” Rev. Byrd said. “But I was more afraid of what I would feel about myself if I did not go there. If I did not go there and protest injustice, to me, I would lose my moral authority.”
So, dressed in his full cleric attire, cross hanging from his neck, Rev. Byrd stood in front of the Pike County Courthouse and made his protest.
“Most of the professionals that came by showed support,” Rev. Byrd said. “And there were a few same-sex couples that came by.”
He received many “thank you”’s and thumbs up from the lawyers filing into the courthouse for the day.
Overall, Rev. Byrd said that he was surprised by a lack of negative reactions.
“I expected way more negative,” he said. “I really expected someone to take a shot at me or tear my signs up or spit on me. Because I’m not a native Alabamian and certainly not this part, but I am old enough to remember segregation so I expected a lot more negative reactions and hostile language. I did get some of that but not to the degree that I thought I would.”
Rev. Byrd said that of the people that reacted negatively to the protest, many remained silent and pretended not to have seen him. Those that were vocal often had that question of how he could take that position as a religious leader.
“And those that wanted to argue, I just thanked them for their opinion and wished them a good day,” he said.
“When you know something is wrong and you want to take a stand you should do it because the consequences are probably not as bad as you imagine them,” Rev. Byrd said of the overall experience.
There was a 22-day period during which gay marriage was legal across Alabama, though Pike County was one of seven counties that never issued same-sex marriage licenses. After that, gay marriage has been outlawed throughout the state.
“I was furious because we no longer had somewhere to protest,” Rev. Byrd said.
“As an elected official, this is a civil issue. A probate judge is a paper pusher and they decided to hide behind the excuse of the religious values to deny people their civil rights.
“I’m sure that the probate judge has married atheists, those that have been divorced once or twice, but then decides to be religious? That’s ridiculous. That’s simply politician posturing for down the road.”
Though Rev. Byrd is excited for the inevitable overturning of Alabama’s continued ban, he is disappointed in the fight that it will follow.
Rev. Byrd said that in April, May or June, when the law is forced upon Alabama, the judges that disagreed “should all quit their jobs if they want to keep their moral integrity intact.”
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“They’re in a bad situation – they’re in a lose-lose situation. They know, in reality, they’re on the wrong side of history. This just harkens back to the efforts made in the 60s for integration. Alabama wants to be forced and make a show of having to be forced from someone on the outside before they will comply. That is just part of Alabama history.
“What I’m hopeful will happen is the state will not try to delay that any more than it already has. The politicians have already made their point so now I think they should get out of the way and equal rights should be given to everyone in Alabama.”
Again, Rev. Byrd emphasized that government officials, including judges of all courts, do not have religious functions, saying that, that type of judgment should be left to the clergy.
“Marriage is a contractual agreement. Civil marriage and the church’s rite of holy matrimony are two separate things altogether. When people go for a civil marriage they’re not looking for those things in holy matrimony.
“I have the right, as a priest, to bless same-sex unions but I do not have the right yet to administer the sacrament of holy matrimony to two same-sex people. I’m not allowed to do that under Canon Law. I can’t set aside my priesthood but I can fight and stand up for the rights of all people as our covenant implores me to.”
Though the story did gain national attention, Byrd is thinking at a local level.
“Someone asked me why I did this,” he said. “I felt as a member of the faith community, the gay and lesbian people in Pike County need to know that there is at least one clergy person that is saying this is wrong.
“I have had overwhelming support from my church for the position that I’ve taken. I made contact with the Troy Spectrum Alliance to try to coordinate efforts in this regard and Troy Students for Social Justice. Whether the students be religious themselves or not, I think they would like to know that there is another ally in town,” Rev. Byrd said of his efforts.
“I’ve done college campus ministry for almost 10 years now in Troy and many students have come out in this office and this is the first safe place they found in their growing up experience,” he said. “So this is holy ground for a lot of people having courage to claim who they are. And I’m honored to be in that position to hear that.”

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