Gay-Union Debate Intensifies in Churches ; Many Major Religious Groups Are Actively Wrestling over Unions and Ordination of Clergy

Article excerpt

* The Catholic church Thursday launched a global campaign against same-sex unions of any kind, calling them "gravely immoral."

* The United Church of Christ and Reform Judaism not only conduct gay union ceremonies but ordain gay clergy.

* Presbyterians have voted to allow "holy union" ceremonies, but not full-fledged weddings.

As gay rights issues gather momentum, major religious groups are being forced to confront where they stand on the sensitive topics of same-sex unions and clergy - and are often taking widely varied approaches.

For some, homosexuality has become the most divisive issue since the ordination of women, and has threatened to split denominations in two.

With US and Canadian courts in the process of redefining homosexual rights, possibly to include marriage, churches now face not only what it means to include gay and lesbian believers as full participants but also how to respond to the potential redefinition of an institution most consider the bedrock of society.

Many have backed the passage, in 37 states and Congress, of "defense of marriage" acts, which define marriage as applying only to a man and a woman; but some clergy support the bid for equal marriage rights.

President Bush spoke out against same-sex marriage on Wednesday, saying further legal action might be needed beyond the defense acts, implying he might support a constitutional amendment.

The acts could eventually be challenged on the basis of the recent US Supreme Court decision upholding certain gay rights. The top court in Massachusetts will soon decide if prohibiting gay marriage is contrary to the state constitution. It would make it the first high court in the US to do so.

"What happens in the public realm has an impact, but faith communities make distinctions between what they believe faith demands and what the law permits," says James Childs, head of a task force on sexuality at Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA).

While mainline churches have long been debating the topics of ordinations and same-sex unions, they're now taking on new urgency. The tension over the issue will be on display over the next week in Minneapolis, where the Episcopalians must take a stand on last month's election of an openly gay man as the next bishop of New Hampshire. They're also debating whether to create a rite of blessing for unions. Lutherans, Methodists, and Presbyterians are in the throes of discussion on similar issues.

Tougher stance

Other churches are taking harder lines. The Vatican's decision Thursday to launch a global campaign against same-sex marriage included guidelines for politicians and lay people - non-Catholics included - on how to affect public opinion and legislative action. The Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) in June adopted a resolution "to oppose steadfastly" all efforts to validate same-sex unions.

"The church should set out a moral vision of what we believe God has laid down as the ground rules for human society; we believe the family is a divine institution and society ought to acknowledge its special status," says Dr. Richard Land, an SBC leader. A federal constitutional amendment is needed, he says, to prevent "judicial elites from foisting their value system on the nation."

Churches support basic rights and civil liberties for homosexuals and condemn violence and discrimination against them, but traditional Christian doctrine has termed homosexual practice incompatible with scripture.

The divide within churches is between conservatives, who feel the authority of the Bible is at stake, and liberals, who say scriptural references are misunderstood and that gays and lesbians deserve full participation as children of God. Some say Bible passages on homosexuality don't address the question of people in faithful, lifelong relationships.

"With the pace of change in society, more and more people are coming forward asking about unions, seeking the blessing of their church," says Sue Laurie of Reconciling Ministries Network, which advocates more inclusion in the United Methodist Church. …