UMNS photo by Paul Jeffrey
Julie Bruno (right) and Susan Laurie serve Holy Communion to guests following their marriage ceremony at General Worth Square in Fort Worth, Texas, across the street from the site of the 2008 United Methodist General Conference. The lesbian couple held the ceremony next to the assembly to protest denominational policies that do not recognize same-sex marriages.
A UMNS Report
The full ramifications of the U.S. Supreme Court’s rulings Wednesday, June 26, on same-sex marriage still are being hashed out.
But on one thing many United Methodists agree: The decisions will add fuel to a longtime denominational debate on how the church ministers to gays and lesbians.
In the case Windsor v. United States, a 5-4 majority opinion by Justice Anthony Kennedy ruled Section 3 of the federal Defense of Marriage Act is unconstitutional, arguing that it is a deprivation of the equal liberty of persons as protected by the Fifth Amendment.
“DOMA singles out a class of persons deemed by a State entitled to recognition and protection to enhance their own liberty,” Kennedy wrote.
The case does not establish a constitutional right to same-sex marriage. What it does is establish that same-sex couples who are legally married are entitled to equal treatment under federal law. These couples now will be able to receive the same federal benefits, with regard to such matters as income taxes and Social Security, that the U.S. government grants to other married couples.
The court did not address whether states that ban same-sex marriage must recognize such marriages that take place in other states.
n the case Hollingsworth v. Perry, the majority opinion by Chief Justice John Roberts ruled that proponents of California’s Proposition 8, which banned same-sex marriage in the state, did not have standing to defend the law on appeal after it was struck down in federal district court. California government officials who normally would have defended the law in court declined to do so.
As a result, the Supreme Court held that the decision by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit has no legal force. It sent the case back to that court with instructions for it to dismiss the appeal. The ruling potentially clears the way for same-sex marriage in California.
What this means for the church
Ahead of the rulings this week, Indiana Area Bishop Mike Coyner published an “E-pistle” noting that he expected people to “be upset and distressed” by the court’s rulings — some wanting more restrictions on marriage and some wanting fewer.
“I believe that we United Methodists need to respond to whatever the Court may rule with these attitudes: prayer, patience and respect for one another,” he wrote.
What the rulings do not change, Coyner noted, is The United Methodist Church’s definition of marriage.
The Book of Discipline, the global 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.”
Since 1972, the book has stated that all people are of sacred worth but “the practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching.”
Church law also bans United Methodist clergy from performing and churches from hosting “ceremonies that celebrate homosexual unions.”
The Judicial Council, the denomination’s top court, ruled in 2009 that it is a chargeable offense for United Methodist clergy to perform ceremonies celebrating same-sex unions, even in states where they are legal.
Intensifying debate and defiance
However, in recent years, some United Methodist clergy increasingly have expressed a willingness to commit “ecclesial disobedience.”
Since 2011, more than 1,000 active and retired United Methodist clergy across the United States signed pledges announcing their willingness to defy the denomination’s ban on officiating at same-sex unions.
The pledges, in turn, sparked a countermovement by other United Methodist clergy and lay people urging the Council of Bishops to make clear that they will enforce the Book of Discipline on this issue. More than 2,800 clergy and nearly 13,500 laity signed those petitions.
The United Methodist Church has more than 46,000 active and retired clergy in the United States.
Bishops responded in a letter released Nov. 11, 2011, promising to uphold church law banning same-sex unions. Some bishops have received complaints since this statement, but not one of those complaints has progressed to a church trial at this point. Under church law, investigations of clergy under complaint are usually confidential.
Church members also increasingly have become more vocal in their disagreement on the issue.
Delegates to the Western Jurisdiction’s meeting in 2012 adopted a “Statement of Gospel Obedience” that says the denomination is in error in its stance on the practice of homosexuality and urged United Methodists to operate as if that position does not exist. A number of United Methodists criticized the Western Jurisdiction’s stance, including Indiana’s Bishop Coyner.
No one has an exact tally, but at least some clergy already have acted on their pledge to officiate at same-sex weddings. The Rev. Thomas Ogletree, a United Methodist theologian and retired elder, announced this spring that he is facing formal charges under church law and a potential trial for officiating at the same-sex wedding of his son.
Reconciling Ministries Network, an unofficial United Methodist caucus that advocates for the denomination’s greater inclusion of gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender individuals, plans to provide space for same-sex weddings during its national convocation Aug. 30-Sept. 2 in Maryland. The space is for couples “who feel called, but live in states where they cannot legally marry or are part of churches that will not affirm their relationship,” the group’s press release said.
Mary Ann Kaiser, a United Methodist whose efforts to become a deacon are under review, already has announced plans to wed her partner, Annanda Barclay, during the gathering.
Shifting views in U.S. but not global church
United Methodist delegates to General Conference, the denomination’s top law-making body, have voted consistently against altering the church’s stance on homosexuality for 40 years. The 2012 General Conference, when it met April 24-May 4 in Tampa, Fla., rejected a proposal to say the church was in disagreement about homosexuality.
Many longtime church observers predict the church’s position will not change anytime soon, particularly since the denomination’s membership is growing in Africa and Asia as it is shrinking in the United States. That means African and Asian representation will increase at General Conference as U.S. representation decreases.
But U.S. public opinion on the subject is changing. Polls for the past year have shown a slim majority of Americans favor allowing gay and lesbian couples to marry legally.
The Public Religion Research Institute survey released in May found support for same-sex civil marriage among 51 percent of white mainline Protestant, 62 percent of Catholic and 73 percent of religiously unaffiliated Americans. In contrast, the poll found support for such marriages at only 36 percent among ethnic minority Protestants and at 26 percent among white evangelical Protestants.
At present, 12 U.S. states and the District of Columbia have made same-sex civil marriage legal — three states just did so this year. Thirty-six states, including California, have constitutional provisions or state laws defining marriage as between a man and a woman.
Globally, 15 nations now allow same-sex marriage as well as parts of Mexico. Of those countries, most are in Europe, three are in South America and only one, South Africa, is in Africa.
Heather Hahn is a multimedia news reporter for United Methodist News Service.