A UMNS Report
By Heather Hahn
A federal court's rejection of California's same-sex marriage ban is receiving condemnation and praise from United Methodists.
One thing both sides agree on: The ruling only adds to the longtime debate on how the church ministers to gays and lesbians.
"It certainly won't mitigate the tension," said the Rev. Norman Carter, a retired Arkansas pastor and member of the Confessing Movement, an unofficial United Methodist group that views homosexual acts as contrary to Scripture and Christian tradition. "I think it will just perpetuate the battle."
The Rev. Karen Oliveto, likewise, expects homosexuality will once again be a topic of contention at the next quadrennial meeting of General Conference, the denomination's top legislative body, in 2012. She serves on the board of directors of the Reconciling Ministries Network, an unofficial United Methodist group that advocates for full inclusion of gays and lesbians in church life.
"As a church, I think we're going to continue to struggle with this issue," said Oliveto, pastor of Glide Memorial United Methodist Church in San Francisco."I know every four years, people say, 'Why does this issue keep coming up?' … The reason why the issue keeps coming up is that gays and lesbians are in our pews."
Civil vs. religious
Vaughn R. Walker, chief judge of the Federal District Court in San Francisco, struck down Proposition 8 as unconstitutional. Proposition 8, also known as the California Marriage Protection Act, passed in November 2008, with 52 percent of the state's vote.
He put a temporary stay on the Aug. 4 ruling, which means the state of California cannot start issuing marriage licenses immediately. Appeals of Walker's ruling are expected – perhaps all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court.
In his 136-page decision, Walker differentiated between the concerns of religious groups and civil society.
Marriage in the United States, he wrote, has always been a civil matter. Granting gays and lesbians the right to legally marry does not require religious bodies to change their policies with regard to same-sex couples or require religious officiants to solemnize such a union, he said.
Walker, an appointee of President George H.W. Bush, noted that both sides in the case had agreed that the right to marry is fundamental. The question, he said, was whether couples of the same sex are seeking to exercise that fundamental right or "whether they seek recognition of a new right."
Ultimately, he concluded, religious concerns do not outweigh California's obligations to treat its citizens equally.
"A private moral view that same-sex couples are inferior to opposite-sex couples is not a proper basis for legislation," Walker wrote, spelling out that decision in all capital letters.
The debate within The United Methodist Church is a different matter. For United Methodists on both sides, marriage is not just up to the government but a part of God's plan.
The Book of Discipline, the denomination's law book, affirms "the sanctity of the marriage covenant that is expressed in love, mutual support, personal commitment, and shared fidelity between a man and a woman."
Linda Bales Todd, an executive with the United Methodist Board of Church and Society, pointed out that the denomination does have "a very clear statement" in its Social Principles supporting "certain basic human rights and civil liberties" for all people, regardless of sexual orientation.
However, The United Methodist Church opposes same-sex unions and forbids its pastors from performing such ceremonies or allowing them to take place in United Methodist churches. The church's Book of Discipline states that the practice of homosexuality is "incompatible with Christian teaching."
"In terms of marriage, we're very firm on it just being between a man and a woman," she said.
In the United States, public support for same-sex unions has been growing fairly steadily over the past decade.
According to an October 2009 report by the Pew Research Center, a majority of Americans – 57 percent – favor allowing gays and lesbians to enter legal agreements that grant many of the same rights married couples receive. Nevertheless, the same poll found that more than half of Americans – 53 percent – still oppose same-sex marriage.
But attitudes are shifting. Varied polls consistently indicate that younger people, including those who are evangelical Christians, are more accepting of gay and lesbian relationships than their elders. The 2009 Pew poll found 58 percent of Americans, ages 18 to 29, now support same-sex marriage.
Teaching church ethics
United Methodists on both sides of the issue agree the church's stance should not depend on the mood of the country.
"The church has to find a way to retain our commitments no matter what the culture is saying," said the Rev. Maxie Dunnam, retired chancellor of Asbury Theological Seminary in Wilmore, Kentucky, and a founder of the Confessing Movement.
He believes that a reason more young people support gay marriage is that "the church has not been faithful in teaching what we believe and what our positions are."
The Rev. Thompson Murray, pastor of Quapaw Quarter United Methodist Church in Little Rock, Arkansas, and a supporter of same-sex marriage, agrees that the church needs to talk about relationships.
"I feel so clearly the church should be in the business of encouraging faithful, healthy relationships – not just traditional relationships," he said.
Still, the legalization of same-sex marriage in various jurisdictions including Connecticut, Iowa, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Vermont, and Washington, D.C., has complicated the issue for church leaders.
If California again joins that number, the Rev. Glen Raley, pastor of Los Banos United Methodist Church in Los Banos, California,fears he will face increasing pressure to officiate at unions he sees as a clear violation of Scripture and church teachings.
"We need to get back to the authority of Scripture," he said. "We need to get back to the idea that our Discipline is not just something written frivolously. It's something to adhere to. It gives us a stand."
The Rev. Kathy Cooper-Ledesma, pastor of Hollywood (California) United Methodist Church, said a congregation member dropped by the church nearly in tears after the Aug. 4 ruling. The man and his partner of 26 years had been married civilly in 2008 and he was overjoyed to see Proposition 8 overturned.
Cooper-Ledesma wants to uphold her ordination vows to follow the Book of Discipline, but she admits that it's a struggle.
"There is pain and injustice to say to a couple that I can baptize them, offer them Communion, bless their home, baptize and confirm their children, and officiate at their funerals … but cannot marry them because they are of the same gender," she said.
The subject of same-sex unions has surfaced every four years at The United Methodist Church's General Conference gathering. Delegates have consistently voted not to change the Book of Discipline.