Same-sex ruling has religious leaders thinking

Churches steadfast despite opinion shift



"Goin' to the chapel and we're gonna get married."

Well, some chapels anyway.

With this week's landmark federal court ruling legalizing same-sex marriage in Pennsylvania, some houses of worship, including those affiliated with more liberal Protestant and Jewish denominations, will be opening their doors to gay couples -- and in fact have been doing so for years before they had benefit of a marriage license.

Many other religious groups -- including Roman Catholics, Orthodox and conservative evangelical Protestants -- are holding fast to traditional doctrine as a matter of course.

And for still other religious groups, the ruling only further complicates their long-running debates over homosexuality.

They're still working out the implications of U.S. District Judge John E. Jones III's declaration that a state law banning gay marriage belongs on the "ash heap of history." Gov. Tom Corbett said Wednesday he would not appeal the ruling.

"The ruling may change the understanding of marriage in the commonwealth, but it doesn't alter the stand of the United Methodist Church at all," said Bishop Thomas Bickerton of the Western Pennsylvania Conference of that denomination. "What it really does is heighten the debate that already exists within the church."

The denomination forbids involvement of its pastors and churches in blessing same-sex unions.

READ about Allegheny County’s first married same-sex couple. 

Bishop Bickerton said Thursday he would be issuing a letter urging pastors to find ways within the bounds of church rules to minister to gay couples and members. "I really believe our pastors, all of them, want to be in ministry to the people they're serving," he said.

The court ruling comes a month before the national General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) will be meeting in Detroit, where representatives are expected to vote on a proposal to redefine Christian marriage to involve two persons regardless of gender. A similar proposal was narrowly defeated in 2012 in favor of further study.

Current church law allows pastors to bless same-sex unions as long as the ceremonies aren't purported to be marriages.

READ about the rush to the Marriage License Bureau.

The Rev. Janet Edwards, a Presbyterian minister from Pittsburgh, was acquitted in 2008 on a technicality for marrying two women.

In the United Methodist Church, the Rev. Frank Schaefer, of Lebanon, Pa., faced similar charges for presiding at his son's same-sex wedding. He is appealing a December 2013 decision in the Eastern Pennsylvania Conference to defrock him.

Rev. Schaefer said in an interview the federal court ruling will likely have limited impact on the global denomination, which includes strongly conservative churches overseas. But it will likely prompt gay couples to "ask their minister, 'Will you perform my marriage?' " he said. "That's going to force a lot of ministers to take a stand one way or another."

Rev. Edwards said she believes changes in church rules will follow those in state legislation, with people coming to see "equal protection under the law" as the legal equivalent to "loving our neighbors."

The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) already has authorized the ordination of openly gay clergy, as have the nation's largest Lutheran and Episcopal groups.

Those and other liberal trends have already prompted scores of conservative congregations to break off and join such bodies as the Evangelical Presbyterian Church, the Ambridge-based Anglican Church in North America and the North American Lutheran Church, all of which have strongly opposed redefinitions of marriage.

Similar statements are voiced by other conservative evangelicals -- including the Christian and Missionary Alliance, Assemblies of God and Southern Baptist Convention -- and by the Orthodox Union, representing traditionalist Jews.

The region's and nation's largest religious group, the Roman Catholic Church, has also staunchly defended traditional marriage.

That stance "can never lead anybody to be prejudiced against any person or group of persons," said Pittsburgh Bishop David Zubik. But "for churches to take a stance against same-sex marriage is not discrimination."

He said the church holds to the ancient definition "because of how important it is that every child have a father and a mother" and because marriage has the "dignity of a sacrament."

He said the diocese is working on a statement in a question-and-answer format to help teach members and the public why the church teaches what it does.

The ruling comes as polls show a majority of Americans and Pennsylvanians now back gay marriage, with support growing even in religious populations whose leaders oppose it.

"The church's responsibility is always to pass on the truth," Bishop Zubik said. "Oftentimes, that's not what the conventional wisdom is."

But other religious denominations have embraced gay marriage for years, including the Metropolitan Community Church, Unitarian Universalist Association and United Church of Christ.

The Reform Jewish tradition, the largest and most liberal major branch of Judaism, has since 2000 authorized its rabbis to bless same-sex relationships.

"From a religious perspective, celebrating the significant moments in people's lives as they come together to marry is a moral imperative we have as a community," said Rabbi Aaron Bisno of Rodef Shalom Congregation in Shadyside. He said he looks forward "to being able to bring the religious ceremony together with the civil recognition that these couples crave and deserve."

The Episcopal Church has a liturgy for blessing same-gender relationships, and Bishop Dorsey McConnell last year gave pastors the option of doing so. He plans to consult with clergy and lay leaders on the implications of the court ruling, his office said.

The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America continues to define marriage as involving one man and one woman but has left it up to each congregation to decide whether to "recognize, support and hold publicly accountable, lifelong, monogamous, same-gender relationships."

"Inasmuch as that minister is an agent of the state, that minister has legal authority to exercise the state's action regarding the folks as married," said Bishop Kurt Kusserow of the Southwestern Pennsylvania Synod. "Inasmuch as that minister is an ordained minister of the ELCA, the answer to that question resides with the congregation that minister is serving."

The Rev. Denise Mason Bullitt, lead pastor for Community of Reconciliation, said the multi-denominational Protestant church in Oakland has long been "radically inclusive," has blessed same-sex relationships for years and is now receiving requests to do licensed weddings.

"We believe God is love, so any expression of goodness and love, we want to honor that," she said.

"Goin' to the chapel and we're gonna get married."

Well, some chapels anyway.

With this week's landmark federal court ruling legalizing same-sex marriage in Pennsylvania, some houses of worship, including those affiliated with more liberal Protestant and Jewish denominations, will be opening their doors to gay couples -- and in fact have been doing so for years before they had benefit of a marriage license.

Many other religious groups -- including Roman Catholics, Orthodox and conservative evangelical Protestants -- are holding fast to traditional doctrine as a matter of course.

And for still other religious groups, the ruling only further complicates their long-running debates over homosexuality.

They're still working out the implications of U.S. District Judge John E. Jones III's declaration that a state law banning gay marriage belongs on the "ash heap of history."

Gov. Tom Corbett said Wednesday he would not appeal the ruling.

"The ruling may change the understanding of marriage in the commonwealth, but it doesn't alter the stand of the United Methodist Church at all," said Bishop Thomas Bickerton of the Western Pennsylvania Conference of that denomination. "What it really does is heighten the debate that already exists within the church."

The denomination forbids involvement of its pastors and churches in blessing same-sex unions.

Bishop Bickerton said Thursday he would be issuing a letter urging pastors to find ways within the bounds of church rules to minister to gay couples and members. "I really believe our pastors, all of them, want to be in ministry to the people they're serving," he said.

The court ruling comes a month before the national General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) will be meeting in Detroit, where representatives are expected to vote on a proposal to redefine Christian marriage to involve two persons regardless of gender.

A similar proposal was narrowly defeated in 2012 in favor of further study.

Current church law allows pastors to bless same-sex unions as long as the ceremonies aren't purported to be marriages.

The Rev. Janet Edwards, a Presbyterian minister from Pittsburgh, was acquitted in 2008 on a technicality for marrying two women.

In the United Methodist Church, the Rev. Frank Schaefer, of Lebanon, Pa., faced similar charges for presiding at his son's same-sex wedding. He is appealing a December 2013 decision in the Eastern Pennsylvania Conference to defrock him.

Rev. Schaefer said in an interview the federal court ruling will likely have limited impact on the global denomination, which includes strongly conservative churches overseas. But it will likely prompt gay couples to "ask their minister, 'Will you perform my marriage?' " he said. "That's going to force a lot of ministers to take a stand one way or another."

Rev. Edwards said she believes changes in church rules will follow those in state legislation, with people coming to see "equal protection under the law" as the legal equivalent to "loving our neighbors."

The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) already has authorized the ordination of openly gay clergy, as have the nation's largest Lutheran and Episcopal groups.

Those and other liberal trends have already prompted scores of conservative congregations to break off and join such bodies as the Evangelical Presbyterian Church, the Ambridge-based Anglican Church in North America and the North American Lutheran Church, all of which have strongly opposed redefinitions of marriage.

Similar statements are voiced by other conservative evangelicals -- including the Christian and Missionary Alliance, Assemblies of God and Southern Baptist Convention -- and by the Orthodox Union, representing traditionalist Jews.

The region's and nation's largest religious group, the Roman Catholic Church, also has staunchly defended traditional marriage.

That stance "can never lead anybody to be prejudiced against any person or group of persons," said Pittsburgh Bishop David Zubik. But "for churches to take a stance against same-sex marriage is not discrimination."

He said the church holds to the ancient definition "because of how important it is that every child have a father and a mother" and because marriage has the "dignity of a sacrament."

He said the diocese is working on a statement in a question-and-answer format to help teach members and the public why the church teaches what it does.

The ruling comes as polls show a majority of Americans and Pennsylvanians now back gay marriage, with support growing even in religious populations whose leaders oppose it.

"The church's responsibility is always to pass on the truth," Bishop Zubik said. "Oftentimes, that's not what the conventional wisdom is."

But other religious denominations have embraced gay marriage for years, including the Metropolitan Community Church, Unitarian Universalist Association and United Church of Christ.

The Reform Jewish tradition, the largest and most liberal major branch of Judaism, has since 2000 authorized its rabbis to bless same-sex relationships.

"From a religious perspective, celebrating the significant moments in people's lives as they come together to marry is a moral imperative we have as a community," said Rabbi Aaron Bisno of Rodef Shalom Congregation in Shadyside. He said he looks forward "to being able to bring the religious ceremony together with the civil recognition that these couples crave and deserve."

The Episcopal Church has a liturgy for blessing same-gender relationships, and Bishop Dorsey McConnell last year gave pastors the option of doing so. He plans to consult with clergy and lay leaders on the implications of the court ruling, his office said.

The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America continues to define marriage as involving one man and one woman but has left it up to each congregation to decide whether to "recognize, support and hold publicly accountable, lifelong, monogamous, same-gender relationships."

"Inasmuch as that minister is an agent of the state, that minister has legal authority to exercise the state's action regarding the folks as married," said Bishop Kurt Kusserow of the Southwestern Pennsylvania Synod. "Inasmuch as that minister is an ordained minister of the ELCA, the answer to that question resides with the congregation that minister is serving."

The Rev. Denise Mason Bullitt, lead pastor for Community of Reconciliation, said the multi-denominational Protestant church in Oakland has long been "radically inclusive," has blessed same-sex relationships for years and is now receiving requests to do licensed weddings.

"We believe God is love, so any expression of goodness and love, we want to honor that," she said.


Peter Smith: petersmith@post-gazette.com, 412-263-1416, or Twitter @PG_PeterSmith.

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