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Thursday, July 15, 2004 12:29 am

A simple ceremony

They can’t marry, but that doesn’t keep them from exchanging vows

The eyes of the world were on Massachusetts two months ago as it became the first state to legally recognize same-sex marriages. New Jersey last week began issuing extended domestic-partnership benefits to homosexual couples, a policy already in place in California and Hawaii. In Maine, a similar law goes into effect later this month. Vermont has recognized civil unions for four years.

Then there are those unions of gay couples that aren't legally recognized, that are little more than personal statements of love made mostly away from the glare of media attention.

In one such service, Erin and Brandi Ludwig were joined together last Saturday, July 10, in a "union ceremony" before a small group of friends and family members at Springfield's Abraham Lincoln Unitarian Universalist Congregation.

The women have been together for about eight years. Erin Ludwig operates a daycare; the former Brandi Moehle (she had her last name legally changed a few days before the ceremony) is a lab technician at the Blood Center.

The ceremony had all the elements and trappings one would expect at any wedding. Before the service, Erin's mother, Maggie, distributed tiny bottles of bubbles to everyone in attendance. There were readings: one a passage from St. Paul, another a love poem by Roy Croft. And there was advice -- and a plea -- from the Rev. Martin Woulfe, who officiated. "Be aware that there are people who will challenge your right," Woulfe told the couple. "I ask that you exercise forgiveness towards them."

A minute later, the lovers joined hands as Woulfe asked Brandi, "Do you come here of your free will and with a conscious desire to be united in a covenant of love and fidelity with Erin?" She replied, "I do." He asked the same of Erin, and received the same answer.

The couple then exchanged vows. Brandi spoke first, in a voice that at times trembled and almost broke. "I commit myself to you joyfully and without reservation," she said. "I pledge to share my life openly with you, so that we may continue to grow and laugh together. I cherish all that you are, and I trust in your love for me. I promise to be with you and for you through all the changes of our lives." Erin repeated the same vows, and the couple exchanged rings.

Then the couple and Brandi's 13-year-old son, Keagan, lit a single candle, affirming the creation of a family as well as a union of two people.

The final touch came from Woulfe, who pronounced Erin and Brandi "partners for life." The congregation applauded.

After the ceremony, Brandi said changing her surname to Erin's didn't pose any problems. Getting a marriage license, as expected, was another story. "We did call about a license," she said. "The county wouldn't issue one."

The couple expressed confidence unions such as theirs will eventually be recognized in Illinois.

"These things seem to start on one coast or the other," Erin said. "We're optimistic it'll eventually move to the heartland." And she eagerly awaits that day: "I've been a single mom for years. Even though Brandi contributes 50 percent of our relationship, I'm still considered a single mom in the eyes of the state."

Several religious denominations have conducted same-sex union ceremonies in recent years. The Metropolitan Community Churches, a nationwide network of churches (including ones in Springfield and Decatur) are predominantly, though not exclusively, gay and lesbian.

Union ceremonies for gays and lesbians have been performed at some United Church of Christ churches and Jewish synagogues as well.

But the Unitarian Universalists have been particularly active in this area, issuing formal statements in support of gay and lesbian rights as early as the early 1970s, and support of union services since 1984.

In the first week of legal same-sex marriage in Massachusetts, 50 couples tied the knot at Arlington Street Church, a prominent Unitarian Universalist church in Boston, and William Sinkford, president of the Unitarian Universalist Association, presided over a few ceremonies.

Woulfe says the Ludwigs' ceremony was only the second of his career. His predecessor, Rev. Mary Moore, who was the congregation's minister from 1985-2001, performed more than a dozen such ceremonies in Springfield.

Moore remembers them fondly, calling it "always a joyous occasion for me, celebrating the love and commitment of couples, many of whom had been partners together for many years."

She says she often presented a couple with two picture frames, one to display the congregation's certificate of holy union; the other to remain empty, symbolizing her hope that "someday their union would be recognized legally. . . with all the rights and privileges such recognition would bring."

Now a hospital chaplain in Peoria, Moore describes herself as "straight, but not narrow."

Erin and Brandi's ceremony took place as the U.S. Senate prepared to debate a proposed amendment to the U.S. Constitution to ban same-sex marriages.

But as the happy couple left church on Saturday, that controversy seemed, at least for the time, far, far away.

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