Christians' views vary on gay marriage

High court expected to decide this week on same-sex issues


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Sam Rohrer leads a statewide network of 2,000 conservative Protestant pastors opposed to same-sex civil marriages. But if the U.S. Supreme Court broadens access to such marriage this week, the Pennsylvania Pastors Network won't advise anyone to shun gay or lesbian couples who move in next door.

"They should respond in love and treat them as they would any other person. That would be Christ's example," said the former state representative from Berks County, adding that it doesn't mean "endorsing the condition."

Most opposition to same-sex civil marriage comes from theologically conservative Christians, while more liberal denominations support it. Many theological conservatives support a status other than marriage to provide benefits to same-sex couples, though leaders on both sides say the opportunity for such compromise has passed.

The leaders and pastors interviewed for this story hold a wide range of views, but all said they would welcome a same-sex couple as neighbors.

Archbishop Robert Duncan of the Anglican Church in North America and the Anglican Diocese of Pittsburgh led a split with the Episcopal Church, triggered partly by acceptance of a partnered gay bishop. He argues that same-sex marriage isn't a matter of equal rights but of preserving heterosexual marriage as the foundation of human society. He could reluctantly accept civil unions.

"While we would say that this won't have a good result for the nation ... this is not a theocracy. The nation has a freedom to define what equal rights look like. It doesn't have the right to redefine an institution," he said.

Evan Wolfson, a Squirrel Hill native who founded Freedom to Marry, believes same-sex marriage will strengthen society.

"It does not change the meaning of marriage. It simply allows same-sex couples to marry the person they love, to establish and protect a family, and to make a lifetime commitment in the same way that other couples are able to," he said.

Civil unions and domestic partnerships "are no substitute for the full measure of respect, clarity, security and responsibilities of marriage," he said. They "do not fully protect families in real situations, especially in emergency situations.."

This week the Supreme Court is expected to rule on a ban on same-sex marriage in California and the federal Defense of Marriage Act, which, passed in 1996, says marriage is only between "one man and one woman," denying federal benefits to same-sex couples. The court decision may affect only California and federal programs but theoretically could require or ban gay marriage nationwide.

Prior to 2003, when the Massachusetts high court was the first to rule same-sex civil marriage a matter of equal rights, there was little consensus among gay activists over its importance.

"There was a whole mentality 20 years ago where gay people would say, 'Oh, we don't want to be married. It's an institution that's falling apart. We're fine with civil unions,' " said the Rev. Renee Waun, pastor of East Suburban Unitarian Universalist Church in Murrysville. She became an advocate for gay rights a few years after her 1981 ordination as a United Methodist minister, when she was often called to visit dying AIDS patients in Shadyside Hospital.

The AIDS crisis led to the marriage movement, said the Rev. Janet Edwards, a Presbyterian Church (USA) minister from Squirrel Hill. Gay people realized the danger of not having health insurance or federal survivor benefits and were inspired by men who faithfully cared for their stricken partners.

"They embraced many within the community who were involved in long-term, deeply committed, loving, supportive relationships, which they began to recognize was marriage," said Rev. Edwards, who endured a church trial in 2008 for conducting a marriage of two women. She was acquitted on the grounds that she couldn't have done so since marriage is only between a man and a woman.

Rev. Edwards said that in an era when Christians lament the failure of heterosexuals to marry, same-sex couples are their allies.

"It's a gift from the LGBT community to the whole, which is to get all of us thinking about the value of marriage," she said.

Different interpretations

Most opposition to same-sex civil marriage is rooted in religious conviction. A recent Pew poll found that 73 percent of those who believe that gay sex is sinful oppose it, while 84 percent of those who say it's not a sin support it.

Leviticus 20:13 says, "If a man has sexual relations with a man ... both of them have done what is detestable. They are to be put to death."

That Bible verse isn't what led Wesley Hill, assistant professor of biblical studies at Trinity School for Ministry in Ambridge, to conclude that his gay sexual orientation requires him to be celibate. The first two chapters of Genesis, which "presents male and female as the partners of one another" and Jesus' affirmation of that in Matthew 19, are far more important to him.

Mr. Hill, 32, grew up in a Baptist family where homosexuality was unacceptable, but he knew that other traditions found it compatible with Christianity. He studied all sides, he said.

"I found myself convinced of the more traditional reading of scripture, that marriage between one man and one woman was the only context for sexual expression in a Christian setting, and that if I intended to remain a traditional orthodox Christian, I needed to be celibate."

He believes people are born with same-sex orientation as a result of the fall -- humanity's original rebellion against God -- which brought imperfections to the world. He hasn't settled his view of same-sex civil marriage.

"There is wide agreement in traditional Christian churches on what scripture says but a wide range of views on how you translate that into a secular society where there are people who are not Christians and there are gay people who want to get married," he said.

Some theologians say the biblical condemnations concern pagan rituals, not committed relationships. More liberal theologians argue that there was no biblical standard for marriage, citing patriarchs with multiple wives. Theological conservatives say those are a record of sin, not an endorsement of polygamy or adultery.

The Rev. Dave Thompson of Tacoma, Wash., is an evangelical gay man who consults with conservative congregations torn over how to respond to gays and lesbians. He believes that God created humans heterosexual, but after the fall, some people inherited same-sex attraction. He says this is as morally neutral as blindness, and that a faithful same-sex relationship is the closest that gays and lesbians can come to the biblical standard of marriage.

Despite Jesus' condemnation of remarriage after divorce, most "evangelical churches welcome and embrace those individuals whose circumstances are unchangeable," he said. "We don't recommend celibacy because we know it won't work. We need to embrace gay individuals in the same circumstances and say as God did in Genesis that 'It is not good that man should be alone.' "

Archbishop Duncan isn't convinced that same-sex attraction is inborn. If it is, he said, it's a temptation that Christians are called to resist.

"People have inclinations for all kinds of things, but we don't celebrate addiction. We don't celebrate things that result from our fallenness," he said.

"In the cases where he meets people with moral problems and blesses and heals them, Jesus says 'Go and sin no more.' I've got to try to love the way he loves."

New majority

John Green, director of the Bliss Institute of Applied Politics at the University of Akron, has been surveying gay marriage since 2003, when 32 percent of Americans favored legalization.

For the first time, his poll for the Pew Research Center this month found a majority -- 51 percent -- saying it should be legal. The shift has been smaller among theologically conservative Protestants, with 22 percent of white evangelicals and 32 percent of black Protestants supporting same-sex civil marriage. Despite opposition from their bishops, Catholics are among Americans most supportive of legal same-sex marriage, with 61 percent in favor.

Mr. Green attributes that figure to less active Catholics who outnumber frequent Mass-goers. Hispanics, who account for nearly a third of Catholics and tend to favor legalizing gay marriage, also made an impact.

He speculates that Hispanic support comes from roots in nations where civil marriage and church marriage are separate, and couples marry at city hall before any church ceremony. They may see no conflict between civil and church marriage, he said.

Some evangelical leaders now acknowledge that people with an exclusively same-sex orientation can't change it, said Rev. Thompson, a member of the Presbyterian Church (USA). Now 38, he spent 15 years trying to change his orientation. Exodus International, which sponsored his support group, renounced such therapy last year and closed its doors last week.

Evangelical support for legal agreements, such as civil unions, that grant rights and responsibilities similar to marriage, was at 49 percent in the Pew survey. Overall, 67 percent of the public approved of such unions.

In 1997, the Catholic Archdiocese of San Francisco, led by an archbishop who later served doctrinal guardian for Pope Benedict XVI, reached an accord with the city over same-sex health benefits. Employees could designate beneficiaries in their household, such as adult siblings or friends, whether or not the relationship was sexual.

But the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops now opposes federal efforts to "incrementally erode marriage, including attempts to expand spousal benefits ... to persons of the same sex or other unmarried persons."

Mr. Rohrer, the former state legislator, is as opposed to alternative legal arrangements as to same-sex marriage.

"Government's interest is to not recognize any other substitute and thereby weaken the family, which weakens society, which weakens the nation."

Rev. Waun said, "People are treating this as a religious issue when it's a constitutional issue. We're talking about equality before the law. The church can decide what it wants to do. It doesn't have to perform gay weddings."

Clergy often refuse to officiate. Many rabbis won't marry a Jew to a non-Jew, for instance.

"The First Amendment ensures that no house of worship or clergy will ever be forced to marry anyone they do not want to, including same-sex couples," Mr. Wolfson said.

Other impacts on marriage

James Skillen is the retired president of The Center for Public Justice, the evangelical social justice lobby.

He believes that if the Supreme Court rules that same-sex marriage is a civil right, anti-discrimination statutes are likely to be amended. He cited Catholic social service agencies that ended adoptions because their state required them to consider same-sex adoptive parents.

"I'm against the whole idea of assuming that America should be a Christian culture," he said. "But the reality is that what people of faith will be allowed to do publicly will become narrower and narrower."

Mr. Skillen has long been on record in cautious support of a domestic partnership that would allow the designation of benefits to household members whether or not the relationship was sexual. But he is deeply concerned about same-sex marriage.

"Government doesn't create marriage and government doesn't define marriage," he said. It provided benefits only to strengthen society and protect children, he said.

He believes that developments since 1970, including test-tube babies and surrogate mothers, have weakened those protections and turned children into commodities. He expects same-sex civil marriage to further that trend. He said the battle against gay marriage was lost long ago when society failed to ask how the pregnancy industry redefined marriage and family.

"I think we will have a society in which marriage will mean less and less socially and morally," he said. "Government will become increasingly responsible for the unwanted children and for those turned back because the people changed their mind. They will pay a fine, but they won't have the police on their doorstep to make sure children are taken care of."

If same-sex marriage is ruled a civil right, "Then why shouldn't any combination of persons, whether same sex or opposite sex, be able to claim a right to call their relationship marriage? To insist on legalizing marriage only for twosomes would be ... arbitrary," he said.

No matter what the court rules, same-sex couples live openly now. When they move in next door, said Bishop David Zubik of the Catholic Diocese of Pittsburgh, they should be welcomed. Those who fear it sets a bad example for children, he said, "Any time that I act uncharitable toward someone, I'm setting a bad example. ... Sometimes people have a difference of opinion. But I think that can lead to a very fruitful discussion. It doesn't mean that people have to surrender their beliefs."

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Ann Rodgers: arodgers@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1416.


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