By David Roach, Baptist Press
NASHVILLE (BP) — At least three mainline Protestant denominations have celebrated the U.S. Supreme Court’s nationwide legalization of gay marriage, and others say they are divided on the issue.
With a new Associated Press poll suggesting decreased support for same-sex marriage among Americans generally, a watchdog group that monitors mainline bodies said gay-affirming denominations are more progressive regarding marriage than the culture.
“By and large, [mainline denominations] have been more liberal than the culture in compromising their sexual standards before the country itself compromised its laws on marriage,” said Mark Tooley, president of the Institute on Religion and Democracy.
Average church members in mainline denominations, Tooley told Baptist Press, are “close to where the nation is as a whole” on gay marriage, but the “governing bodies” of those denominations are “certainly much more liberal than the country is.”
The AP poll, conducted in conjunction with the German market research organization GfK, found 42 percent of Americans favor legalized same-sex marriage, down from 48 percent in April. The 1,004 adults polled were almost evenly split on whether local government officials with religious objections should be required to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples, AP reported.
A majority of those polled (56 percent) said it is more important for the government to protect religious liberty than gay rights. A full 59 percent said wedding-related business owners with religious objections should be allowed to refuse service to same-sex couples.
Only 39 percent of those polled said they approve of the Supreme Court’s ruling — a minority that reflects the views of the governing bodies of the Episcopal Church, the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) and the United Church of Christ, all of which have affirmed the high court’s decision.
Less than a week after the court’s June 26 ruling, the General Convention of the Episcopal Church amended the church’s canons to allow marriage between people of the same gender. Deputies, as the Episcopal Church calls delegates to its convention, also authorized liturgies that can be used at same-sex weddings, according to Episcopal News Service.
Leaders of the PCUSA said in a June 26 statement released by the denomination’s office in Louisville, Ky., “The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) is celebrating the U.S. Supreme Court ruling that same-gender couples have a constitutional right to marry nationwide, striking down bans in 14 states. Church leaders believe today’s ruling is a step in the right direction as society’s views have continued to change in recent years.”
The PCUSA General Assembly voted last year to let ministers conduct same-sex weddings and approved an amendment to the body’s constitution defining marriage as between “two people” rather than “a man and a woman.” The amendment was ratified March 17 after a majority of the PCUSA’s 171 presbyteries approved it, according to the PCUSA website.
The United Church of Christ, which affirmed gay marriage in 2005, issued a June 26 news release “celebrating the decision of the U.S. Supreme Court to affirm marriage equality for all people.”
J. Bennett Guess, the first openly gay UCC national officer, said according to the release, “We’ve been at this a long time, and when the final story is written on how marriage equality came to this country, it will be impossible for anyone to ignore the significant leadership that the United Church of Christ, our churches and leaders, contributed toward making this victory for LGBTQ families possible.”
The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America and the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) both released statements expressing division within their fellowships regarding the Supreme Court ruling.
Elizabeth Eaton, ELCA presiding bishop, wrote in a pastoral letter to the denomination, “For many members of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, this decision is a welcome sign of hope and a time for celebration. Other members of this church do not agree with the court’s decision and remain deeply concerned because of their understanding of Scripture.”
Eaton continued, “This decision affects each of us, some profoundly, and we are not of one mind. Let us continue to accompany one another with prayer, love and mutual respect as we reflect on this new reality and remember Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians about the enduring power of God’s love.”
In 2009, the ELCA adopted a statement that acknowledged diverse opinions among Lutherans on homosexuality and neither endorsed nor condemned same-gender marriages, Eaton wrote.
Disciples of Christ General Minister and President Sharon Watkins wrote in a July 14 blog post that “the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) places a high value on both religious freedom and individual interpretation of Scripture” while leaving all decisions of policy on same-sex marriage to local congregations.
“Thoughtful Disciples come to different conclusions about marriage equality,” Watkins wrote. “For many, it is a positive step biblically and constitutionally. It affirms life-long, monogamous relationships, celebrates loving couples and stable families, gives legal support for children and spouses. For others, the Court’s decision is contrary to biblical and traditional understandings of marriage.”
The American Baptist Churches USA, when asked by BP for a statement on the Supreme Court ruling, responded via email, “We respect and will continue to respect congregational freedom on this issue knowing that, within our family, we differ, but in love. We will continue to work through the Baptist Joint Committee on Religious Liberty regarding issues related to separation of church and state.”
The ABCUSA General Board voted in 2005 to amend the statement “We Are American Baptists” to define marriage as “between one man and one woman” and declare that “the practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Biblical teaching.” However, that statement was never voted on at an ABCUSA biennial meeting and did not become an official denominational statement, spokesperson Bridget Lipin said.
Carmen Fowler LaBerge, president of the conservative Presbyterian Lay Committee, told BP mainline congregations and pastors who oppose gay marriage become increasingly susceptible to discrimination lawsuits when their parent denominations abandon official endorsements of traditional marriage.
“PCUSA churches are not the only ones that have no ecclesiastical backstop on this,” LaBerge said in written comments. “The Lutherans in the ELCA, the Episcopalians in TEC and churches in the UCC are also in denominations that have declared same-sex marriage ‘blessed.’ None of them will be able to appeal, if challenged, to the ‘sincerely held religious belief’ of their higher governing body. They will each have to prove that man-woman marriage is a theologically grounded ‘sincerely held religious belief’ and that the theological position of their denomination on this is not binding on them as a local church.
“That legal test is coming for churches that have allowed their sanctuaries and chapels to be used for weddings of non-believers and people of other faith traditions,” LaBerge said. “It is going to be very hard for them to demonstrate a consistently held theological belief based on the Scriptures if they’ve been willing to perform or host weddings for non-Christians. How then will they defend the right to not marry professing Christians of the same gender?”
The United Methodist Church maintains an official stand against gay marriage but acknowledges disagreement among congregations and local church members on the subject.
A release from the United Methodist Church stated, “United Methodists had varied reactions to the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling that establishes same-sex civil marriage as a constitutional right. But many United Methodists agree on one thing: The decision likely will escalate a longtime denominational debate on the church’s position on homosexuality.”
United Methodist clergy are banned from performing same-sex weddings, and churches are banned from hosting them, according to the UMC release.