It doesn't matter
if you're gay or straight, you can't get legally
married at Lyndale United Church of Christ.
liberal church in south Minneapolis was the first of several
Twin Cities congregations last year to stop performing civil
marriage ceremonies as long as same-sex marriage is
illegal. These churches and a handful of others around
the country that took the same step will still hold a
religious ceremony to bless the unions of straight and gay
couples -- but straight couples must go separately to
a judge or justice of the peace for the marriage
''If you feel
that gay and lesbian people are loved and credited by God,
then how can we continue to discriminate against our
brothers and sisters?'' asked the Reverend Don
Portwood, the reserved Nebraska native who's been lead
pastor at the 120-member Lyndale United Church of Christ
for 27 years.
The churches in
question minister to only a handful of the most liberal
churchgoers in Minneapolis and St. Paul, and most have a
large contingent of gay members in the congregation.
''Go 20 miles out
of the city and it will be a different story,'' said
the Reverend David Runnion-Bareford, executive director of
Biblical Witness Fellowship, a New Hampshire-based
conservative movement within the United Church of
But the pastors
leading these congregations don't expect other churches,
particularly those from more conservative denominations, to
follow suit. Rather, it's a new strategy to achieve
legal marriage for gays and lesbians, with supporters
hoping to push toward a society that views civil and
religious marriage as separate institutions.
''There's a real
shift going on here where I think more and more people
are recognizing the distinction, that what the state offers
and the church offers are two different things,'' said
the Reverend Mark Wade, pastor of the 540-member
Unitarian Universalist Church in Asheville, N.C.
Last year Wade
stopped signing marriage licenses, and he now speaks of it
as a stand for the separation of church and state. ''We tell
couples to go to the magistrate,'' Wade said. ''I felt
I couldn't serve an unjust law. That didn't make any
sense to me.''
It's difficult to
know how many congregations nationwide have taken such
a step. Wade said he knows of about a dozen fellow Unitarian
ministers who won't sign marriage licenses. There are
at least five congregations in the Twin Cities that
either no longer perform civil marriages or are
phasing them out -- three from the United Church of Christ,
one Unitarian, and one Lutheran.
Portwood said he
knows of at least several other UCC congregations around
the country that have made the change. There was no response
to several messages left with UCC headquarters in
The UCC, which
counts presidential candidate Barack Obama among its
members, is one of the oldest denominations in the United
States, with roots going back to the Pilgrims. In 2005
the church's General Synod voted to support same-sex
marriage as a civil right, the first mainline
Christian denomination to do so.
That started the
discussion at several of the UCC congregations in the
Twin Cities that led to the current policies. ''I don't know
that they thought we'd go quite this far,'' said the
Reverend Sarah Campbell, lead pastor at the 650-member
Mayflower Congregational Church in Minneapolis, which
followed the Lyndale church's lead a few weeks later.
Both Campbell and
Portwood said the change was an easy sell with their
congregations. Both churches put it to a vote of their
congregations. At Lyndale, there were no dissenting
votes, while at Mayflower there were only two.
Lyndale never held many weddings, and that hasn't changed
since the new rule. Mayflower, with a larger congregation,
has traditionally held more weddings and hasn't seen a
spike or decline since the change, Campbell said. In
Asheville, which Ward said is something of a ''wedding
tourist destination,'' the Unitarian Universalist Church saw
an initial drop-off in wedding ceremonies but has since
returned to normal levels, he said.
Vickie Wunsch and
Susie George, partners for the past 12 years, had a
religious wedding ceremony at Mayflower a few weeks ago.
''It was what I would consider a pretty traditional
wedding,'' Wunsch said. The two have a marriage
license from Canada, but hope to someday get one from the
state of Minnesota, she said.
''I think both
the civil and the conventional aspects of marriage are
important, but they both have their place,'' Campbell said.
''It's just gotten mixed up where they're not clearly
separated. I would say it's only a matter of time
before we move to what they've done in Canada, South
Africa, Europe -- separating out those two aspects.''
whose group led the opposition to UCC's declaration on
same-sex marriage in 2005, said that might not be as
difficult to achieve as some might imagine. If gay
marriage becomes legal in states other than
Massachusetts, Runnion-Bareford predicted, then churches
like Lyndale and Mayflower could find unlikely allies.
''I know there
are clusters of conservative pastors in Massachusetts who
have discussed refusing civil ceremonies so as not to be
under pressure to perform same-gender ceremonies,''
said Runnion-Bareford, who himself believes that
government and the church have a joint interest in
promoting traditional marriage as a societal good.
they are putting forward is, What is that connection going
to be?'' he said. ''Will clergy continue to be civil agents?
What will be the changing picture of the relationship
between religion and marriage?'' (Patrick Condon, AP)