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Same-sex marriage: Issue too hot to be taken on faith

The Baltimore Sun

Religious leaders in Maryland are sharply divided on the question of same-sex marriage, a fact that is likely to weigh heavily in an anticipated debate on the issue this winter in the General Assembly.

Religious leaders bring podiums, votes and organizations to a hot-button issue that is both religious and political.

When the Maryland Court of Appeals rejected same-sex marriage in a 4-3 ruling last week, "friend of the court" legal briefs from religious groups were among the stacks of material urging support for each side.

The decision prompted advocates from both sides to say they would seek legislation or a state constitutional amendment further clarifying the issue.

"Churches become very involved when they perceive it is a moral issue," said John C. Green, senior fellow at the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life. Marriage, closely tied to Scripture and religious teachings, falls into that category.

Overall, he said, a 2004 Pew Forum study indicated this: Evangelical Christians tend to oppose same-sex marriage, with mainline Protestants somewhat more supportive and people with no religious affiliation tending to be more in favor. The more traditional the beliefs and practices -- such as with Hispanic Catholics -- the more likely the opposition to same-sex marriage. But younger people, even within conservative churches, are more open to same-sex marriage.

The Massachusetts Supreme Court's ruling in 2003 allowing same-sex marriage shook opponents nationwide into activism, led by the evangelical Christians.

"To have a court suddenly change something is a very, very unsettling thing. It feels like an imposition. It wasn't debated," Green said.

As it became clear that a push for same-sex marriage would take place in Maryland, where the top court is liberal-leaning, religious opponents mobilized. (Same-sex couples filed suit in 2004.)

Evangelical Christians and their allies are credited as driving forces in 2004, when 11 states adopted constitutional bans on same-sex marriage.

Douglas Stiegler, executive director of the Association of Maryland Families, said the Christian organization would continue pushing in the Legislature for a constitutional amendment defining marriage as one-man, one-woman through its Family Protection Lobby regardless of what the opposing lobby seeks.

"We are not going to wait for the ACLU or Equality Maryland," he said. "We do it on our own."

Bishop Harry Jackson, pastor of Hope Christian Church in Bowie and chairman of the High Impact Leadership Coalition, has been a vocal critic of same-sex marriage and of framing it in a civil rights context, in opposition to the political action leadership of the Maryland State Conference of NAACP Branches.

"I know people who used to be gay. I don't know any people who used to be black. This is not about civil rights," he said. "I take personal offense with someone equating their gayness with my blackness."

The Maryland Catholic Conference, opposed to same-sex marriage, "will oppose anything that appears that way -- if it is marriage by a different name, we will oppose it," Richard J. Dowling, executive director, said.

Anwer Hasan, president of the Maryland Muslim Council, said that "according to our religion, it is against the religion," but said the umbrella organization did not get politically embroiled in the issue, and probably wouldn't when it hits the Legislature.

Nationally, the faith community on the pro-same-sex marriage side has mobilized more slowly, Green noted.

Equality Maryland has organized a coalition of religious leaders favoring same-sex marriage.

"I think some day, people are going to be embarrassed about the opinions they wrote and votes that they took," said the Rev. Phyllis L. Hubbell, who serves with her husband as a minister of the First Unitarian Church of Baltimore.

"We are going to continue the struggle as long as it takes," she said.

The Rev. Andrew Foster Connors, whose parishioners at Brown Memorial Park Avenue Presbyterian Church in Baltimore include two of the plaintiffs in the lawsuit, said he "will do what I can to help" make same-sex marriage legal in Maryland.

Still, he called the Presbyterian Church (USA), the nation's largest Presbyterian denomination, of which his church is a part, "pretty conflicted" over same-sex couples. Church authorities allow ministers to bless same-sex unions within the church, but do not permit use of the word "marriage" or the marriage ceremony, he said.

It's not necessarily easy for a faith community's leadership to choose a side. Even within a religion, there may be no agreement.

"We are in turmoil about this, like many other churches," Bishop H. Gerard Knoche of the Delaware-Maryland Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church said last week. "It is presently the most divisive issue in our church."

Twice since three Lutheran bodies merged in 1988, the Evangelical Lutheran Church's national leadership has been unable to adopt guiding statements on sexuality. In 2009, a task force working for five years is to present a statement for a vote. The rub: The church is split about 50-50, but social statements require a two-thirds vote for adoption, Knoche said.

While the church welcomes gay parishioners, "we have never agreed that we should bless same-sex relationships," he said.

But some Lutheran pastors do, in an "act of ecclesiastical disobedience," the bishop noted, adding, "We are not a heavy-handed church in discipline."

So divisive is the issue within the Jewish community that the Baltimore Jewish Council has stayed out of the fray, said Art Abramson, executive director.

"Many in the more liberal religious communities feel it is OK. But I can tell you the Orthodox are opposed to a legal sanction," he said. "There is no consensus of opinion. That is why we have no community opinion."

But the Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Washington, an umbrella organization, supports civil recognition of same-sex relationships. A ruling allowing same-sex marriage would have been viewed in much the same way as interfaith marriage: OK under civil law, but not forced upon clergy -- and many rabbis decline to perform interfaith weddings.

Last week, while the Maryland Court of Appeals handed down the 4-3 ruling that upheld a ban on same-sex marriage, the leader of Maryland's Episcopal diocese, Bishop-in-Charge John L. Rabb, was en route to a House of Bishops meeting in New Orleans to discuss same-sex marriage and the ordination of non-celibate gay clergy.

The support for these issues by members of the House of Bishops has prompted some American parishes to align themselves with more conservative African and Latin American bishops; some say it threatens the unity of the Episcopal Church in the United States and its standing within the international Anglican communion.

andrea.siegel@baltsun.com

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