WASHINGTON — Rita Alderete is single, but she values the idea of marriage being a relationship between one man and one woman.
That's why the young, diminutive pastor of the Kingdom Tabernacle of Worship church in Paterson, New Jersey, stood under overcast skies in hot, humid weather Thursday, preparing to "March for Marriage," a now-annual rally sponsored by the National Organization for Marriage and other groups.
"We're proclaiming Jesus and offering a choice of changing your life and experiencing what God can do," she said.
The several thousand people present was small compared to the hundreds of thousands who braved the bitter cold of January earlier this year to participate in the annual anti-abortion March for Life.
But Rick Santorum, a former U.S. senator from Pennsylvania and a 2012 Republican presidential hopeful, believes that even a modest turnout can influence policymakers.
"It's a process. You've got to keep fighting," he said. "I'm encouraged that in an environment which is a very threatening one for people who stand up and fight on this issue, that people are willing to come out and voice their support."
Though critics slammed the march as being "anti-gay," speakers from Santorum to National Organization for Marriage president Brian Brown to New York state Sen. Ruben Diaz, D-Bronx, to San Francisco Roman Catholic Archbishop Salvatore Cordileone, each emphasized that the march wasn't opposed to anyone, but was in favor of society's traditional definition of marriage.
"This isn't about hating anybody or any thing," Santorum told the crowd in a speech simultaneously translated into Spanish from the platform. "This is about loving truth and what's best for men, women and children."
For her part, Alderete was less concerned with turnout than the admonition of scripture. Traditional marriage is "clearly in the Bible, even though some people don't like to hear it," she said, referencing Jesus' words about marriage in Matthew 19:5: "For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh."
Alderete added, "It didn't say a man would leave his 'father and father' or 'mother and mother.’ ”
The rally and march took place as the ground underneath traditional marriage continues to shift. Meeting in Detroit on Thursday, leaders of the Presbyterian Church (USA) voted by a margin of 76 percent to 24 percent to allow clergy to perform same-sex wedding ceremonies, Religion News Service reported.
The change in PCUSA rules still has to be ratified by the group's 172 regional districts, and applied only in those states where same-sex marriage is legal, RNS reported, adding that PCUSA pastors who do not wish to perform the ceremonies do not have to do so.
On the civil front, however, a recent slew of federal and state court decisions as well as legislative and electoral victories have reflected what supporters say is a growing national momentum in favor of same-sex marriage.
Such victories apparently seemed distant to Ellen Taylor from Washington, D.C., who described herself as "an activist" while being one of six people holding or standing near a banner labeled "Love Not Hate — Stop Killing Us" and holding the rainbow flag that has come to symbolize the gay rights movement.
"It's not exactly a protest, but I want to give a voice to the rights of the LGBT community," Taylor said when asked why she was there. When Craig Turner of Burke, Virginia, approached one of the "Love Not Hate" demonstrators to ask whether they also support marriage between a brother and sister, a third activist ordered his fellow protester, "Don't engage with him." When a reporter tried to observe the exchange up close, the organizer, who did not identify himself, attempted to block any witnesses' view.
Others at the event were more benign in their approach, though equally committed to the cause and mindful of their potential impact on the congressional offices a few hundred yards away.
Efrain Lopez, from the New York City borough of Manhattan, has been married 33 years and is active in the Second Macedonian Church Assemblies of God.
"I'm out of work right now, but I would still take a day off to attend this rally," Lopez, a doorman, said. "It's a very important thing we're doing. We're not just people, we're voters."
Alan Hankins, who manages a LifeWay Christian Books outlet in Springfield, Virginia, stood on the lawn with his wife and said they were at the event for the first time.
"God is the one to define marriage," he said, "And man cannot change what God has defined. It's important (to be here) because elected officials will see the strength of the people speaking up."
Keith Fournier, a Roman Catholic deacon from Chesapeake, Virginia, who said he drove five hours to attend the event, said, "I don't think you can underestimate the importance of marriage; it's the first, vital cell of society. This (rally) is a very important event."
Defying a request from Rep. Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., and other leaders to avoid the event, Archbishop Cordileone addressed the crowd and later said traditional marriage has plenty of support in San Francisco, whose former mayor, current California Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsome, pioneered efforts to legalize same-sex marriage.
"There's more support than people would realize in San Francisco for (traditional) marriage," Cordileone said. Of his critics, "I think we need to do a better job educating our people. I think we've fallen down on educating people on the basic truths of our religion and the basic truths of nature; this (marriage) is based in nature. It's a matter of an ongoing dialogue to help people understand why we do what we do."
Cordileone, the Catholic Church's point man on the gay marriage debate in the United States, said he understood the motive for approximately 80 political and community leaders to send an "open letter" to him protesting the March for Marriage event. But he said Pelosi's letter, first disclosed in the San Francisco Chronicle, "was a private letter that got leaked."
He added, "I have been already in communication with Rep. Pelosi," though he did not divulge the nature of that discussion.