Religious houses stand divided on gay marriage debate


The preachers stood before the crowd and roared that God meant marriage to be between a man and a woman. The crowd responded with a chorus of "Amens" and "Yes, brothers."

For the hundreds gathered outside the State House at the Defend Maryland Marriage rally Thursday, the sentiment was clear: Religious people, particularly Christians, oppose gay marriage.

But days before the rally, the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) sent a letter to President Bush explaining its support for civil unions. At about the same time, leaders in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America proposed that pastors not be disciplined for blessing same-sex unions.

And the Episcopal Church's General Convention has been debating religious ceremonies blessing same-sex unions in many of its churches.

Clearly, religious people are not of one mind on the issue.

"The variation is not so much among denominations as it is among the traditional, centrists and modernists within the denominations," said John C. Green, who conducted a Pew Forum study that last year found an array of religious opinions on gay marriage.

The religious take on gay marriage is especially important now, given its effect on public policy. Evangelical Christians demonstrated their influence in November, most election analysts agree, when 11 states passed constitutional bans on gay marriage.

There's no question, said Green, director of the Ray C. Bliss Institute of Applied Politics at the University of Akron, that the movement to codify traditional marriage has come from inside churches rather than legislatures - and was sparked by the Massachusetts Supreme Court's decision in 2003 to recognize gay marriages.

"It surprised me how fast it happened. It was very definitely a reaction to Massachusetts," he said.

High-profile issue

Although the Maryland General Assembly is not likely to approve a constitutional amendment banning gay marriage this year, the issue remains high profile among religious groups because opponents of a state law recognizing marriage as a heterosexual union have mounted a court challenge.

Momentum in Maryland for legislation regarding gay marriage is likely to follow the path that Green said it did in other states, through the pews.

So far, evangelical preachers have taken the lead in the state on mobilizing against gay marriage.

They began last fall, when Bishop Bart Pierce, pastor of Rock City Church in Towson, called a meeting with pastors to discuss the issue with the most ardent opponent of gay marriage in the General Assembly, Del. Donald H. Dwyer Jr., an Anne Arundel Republican.

From there, the evangelical pastors widened their network and eventually created the Defend Maryland Marriage political action committee and sponsored Thursday's rally, which about 1,000 people attended.

"I believe this issue is going to make the church stand up and take its rightful position of influence in the government," said Rick Bowers, head of the committee and pastor of Living Stone House of Worship in Columbia.

Religious leaders on the other side of the issue are starting to organize a counterpoint. On Thursday, several clergy members gathered before the rally to voice support for gay rights. Last week, the Jewish Community Center of Greater Washington sponsored a forum on the issue that had most members of the audience voicing support for gay unions and encouraging one another to support them more publicly.

Nationally, the religious landscape is mixed.

Many evangelical denominations, such as the largest Protestant denomination, the Southern Baptist Convention, stand solidly against gay marriage and civil unions, a construct that confers some of the legal benefits of marriage. The Roman Catholic Church and Islam are also opposed to gay unions.

But mainline Protestant denominations are in flux. The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) recognizes marriage as a union only between a man and woman and does not ordain gay clergy. Nevertheless, the denomination so strongly supports civil unions that its leadership sent letters this month to Congress and President Bush urging the extension of rights to gay couples.

The United Methodist Church leadership voted last spring to affirm their definition of marriage as a union between a man and a woman. They also, however, advocated an extension of civil rights to same-sex couples.

The Evangelical Lutheran Church does not recognize same-sex union blessings in its dioceses. But a task force assembled to recommend changes to church law suggested this month that pastors and churches that disobey the rules not be disciplined.

That proposal and the entire stance on gay unions are to be considered at a churchwide assembly this summer.

Decisions in the Episcopal Church are made diocese by diocese. Some congregations adamantly oppose gay marriage while others offer elaborate religious ceremonies to bless gay unions.

The General Convention of the Episcopal Church will address the issue at its triennial conference next year.

"Some do. Some don't," said Episcopal News Service spokeswoman Jan Nunley. "I guess you can say we're a church for adults."

Jewish views break down along the lines of the major strains. The Orthodox oppose gay marriage. Conservatives support civil rights for gays but do not allow gay marriage blessings. The Reform movement supports full gay marriage in civil law and also allows rabbis to perform religious marriage ceremonies for same-sex couples.

Even those variations don't reflect the myriad factions within each denomination. There are Baptist groups, for instance, that welcome gays. And a major Presbyterian division, the Presbyterian Church in America, is adamant that gay unions are incompatible with biblical principles.

And, of course, there are difference of opinions among the members.

Exceptions to rule

The Pew National Survey of Religion and Politics last spring found that overall some generalizations about religious affiliation were true: A strong majority of evangelical Protestants oppose gay marriage and civil unions while those who supported gay marriage by the largest percentage did not affiliate themselves with any religion. Still, the study found exceptions within every denomination.

While half of mainline Protestants reported opposition to gay marriage, about a quarter expressed support for civil unions and about a quarter supported gay marriage.

Thirty percent of Catholic respondents said they supported gay marriage, a greater percentage than among mainline Protestants. Black and Hispanic Protestants said they opposed gay marriage at significantly higher rates than do their white counterparts.

"We may not agree on all issues, but on this one we do," the Rev. Gregory B. Perkins, the pastor of Baltimore's St. Paul Community Baptist Church, said of the traditionally liberal black pastors' alliance with white evangelical conservatives over gay marriage.

Then Perkins, who personally opposes gay unions, added a quick aside. "I get beat up for saying it. There are plenty of folks who disagree."

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