Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Religious support for marriage in Western New York

The Buffalo News has an excellent story today on an increase in clergy support for marriage for same-sex couples in Western New York. The reporter ties Buffalo's LGBT-supportive religious community in to an update on some of the larger national trends toward religious acceptance of the LGBT community.

More same-sex couples find support for 'blessed unions'
By Jay Tokasz

When the Rev. Joel Miller looks at two men or two women who love one other and want to be together in marriage, he sees something many clergy don't.

"To me, that's where God is," said Miller, senior minister of the Unitarian Universalist Church of Buffalo.

Religious groups for years have led the charge against same-sex marriage, often citing scripture and their understandings of natural law in rallying voters and legislators to oppose the measure.
But across the state and in Western New York, some clergy and faith communities have become key allies in efforts to pass same-sex marriage legislation.

A variety of religious groups argue on both religious and secular grounds that gay people have a right to wed.

"For Unitarian Universalists, the presence of the holy us within our relationships, it's in our connections. That's the source of life, of meaning, the sacred. And families are the primary relationship in human existence," said Miller, who has blessed many same-sex unions. "So when two people want to marry who have the love, the commitment, the balance of personal skills and the balance of shared strengths, for us, of course we would want to create a family from that. The sex of the two people involved is relevant only to the family."

As a denomination, the Unitarian Universalist Church has long championed the rights of gay people, and its national body approved formal support of same-sex marriage in a 1996 resolution.

The United Church of Christ's governing body, the General Synod, voted in 2005 both to support same-sex marriage and advocate in favor of it.

The Reform and Reconstructionist movements in Judaism also support the right of gays and lesbians to wed.

"It's pretty clear that this is a justice issue," said Rabbi Alex Lazarus-Klein of Temple Sinai, a Reconstructionist synagogue in Amherst. "The justice element is more important than a few verses in Leviticus."

Empire State Pride Agenda, the largest advocacy group for gay rights in the state, began an effort to organize support from religious communities in 2005, with the launch of its "Pride in the Pulpit" initiative.

"We believed that a small number of conservative individuals and congregations had been owning the pulpit and framing the dialogue for far too long," said Alan Van Capelle, executive director of Empire State Pride Agenda.

Van Capelle said his organization simply asked various clergy to make their support for gay rights more known to the general public.

"Not all people of faith denounce homosexuality," he said.

Enlisting support

Nationwide, mainline Protestant clergy were split in their support for same-sex marriage, according to one recent poll.

The 2008 Clergy Voices Survey conducted by Public Religion Research found that 46 percent of clergy supported gay marriage, as long as its legalization came with assurances that no church would be required to perform same-sex marriage services against its beliefs.

About two-thirds of United Church of Christ clergy surveyed said they supported gay marriage. At 20 percent, American Baptist clergy were the least likely mainline Protestant ministers to support gay marriage.

Pride in the Pulpit enlisted more than 1,000 clergy and congregational leaders from all 62 New York counties to rebut arguments from opponents of same-sex marriage.

The effort helps give a "face and a voice" to the flip side in the religious debate on the issue, said Van Capelle.

"It debunks the myth that gay and lesbian people are not people of faith, because we are," he said.

Matter of rights

For Jeffrey Schneider, who grew up Catholic in Cheektowaga, the importance of getting married in a formal ceremony in front of family and friends was "ingrained" in him from early on.
Miller officiated at the 2008 wedding of Schneider and his partner, Robert Ladislaw, in the Japanese Gardens at Delaware Park.

The two later tied the knot legally in Canada. And the couple, who live in New York City, will marry again if the state makes it legal, said Schneider.

"[Marriage] affords us over 1,000 rights that we don't have now," he said.

Empire State Pride Agenda won't wade into disputes within denominations over whether religious blessings should be provided for unions of gay couples, said Van Capelle.

In some cases, though, individual clergy and parishioners have started pressing against the official stances of their religious denominations.

The United Methodist Church, for example, officially considers marriage an act between a man and a woman and forbids same-sex ceremonies.

But as a United Methodist minister, the Rev. Vivian R. Waltz doesn't see the fairness in the prohibition.

"Gay people," she said, also "are God's children."

Nor would she dismiss the possibility of presiding over a gay wedding.

"I would have to pray on that," said Waltz, minister of discipleship at Hamburg United Methodist Church. "I'm fully cognizant that such an act could jeopardize my credentials in the church. At the same time, I serve a God of justice, and the church's position is unjust."

The state's Roman Catholic bishops, including Bishop Edward U. Kmiec of the Diocese of Buffalo, have staunchly opposed the same-sex marriage legislation. And while the majority of Catholics also were opposed, a significant number of Catholics in New York — 39 percent — expressed support for legal gay marriage, according to a Quinnipiac College poll in May.

Bill Marx, who runs a Catholic peace organization in Buffalo, said denying gay people the legal benefits of marriage is unjust and must be corrected.

"It can't exist that people are suffering because of it. God would never have it that way," said Marx.

Marx said he wasn't so much disagreeing with the bishops as "using the teachings of the church on the primacy of conscience."

"We're a church of social justice," he said. "We as a church have an obligation to come up with an alternative that doesn't ignore our interpretation of marriage, but we can't hold to that and deny efforts to equal justice. I cannot stand by silent when there's an injustice to be corrected."
Other denominations continue to grapple with whether to support gay marriage.

'Don't ask, don't tell'

At the 2009 General Convention in July, the Episcopal Church moved to allow its bishops to provide "general pastoral response" in meeting the needs of same-sex couples and blessing their unions.

Individual Episcopal priests had been conducting such blessings and services on a kind of "don't ask, don't tell" basis.

The new stance, along with a move that allows openly gay men and lesbians to serve as bishops in the church, has put the Episcopal Church at odds with the Worldwide Anglican Communion.

The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America recently reconsidered the issue of same-sex marriage at its Churchwide Assembly in Minneapolis, but came to no definitive stance in favor or against it.

Instead, a social statement on human sexuality approved by a two-thirds majority acknowledged "disagreements" about whether marriage is "the appropriate term" to use to describe the benefits and protections for same-gender couples entering into lifelong, monogamous relationships.

The Presbyterian Church USA decided last summer at its General Assembly against changing its definition of marriage to include same-sex couples.

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