On March 17, the deciding vote was cast. Palisades Presbytery was the 86th presbytery – a clear majority of the Presbyterian Church (USA)’s 171 presbyteries – to vote in favor of changing the denomination’s definition of marriage to allow same-sex marriages.
The vote officially changed the definition of marriage found in the PCUSA’s constitution from being between “a man and a woman” to marriage being “a unique relationship between two people, traditionally a man and a woman.” While it doesn’t go into effect until June 21, 2015, the 221st General Assembly approved an Authoritative Interpretation in June, 2014, that allows PCUSA pastors to conduct same-sex weddings in states where it is legal, until that date. So same-sex marriages can and are being legally conducted now in the PCUSA.
And in the midst of all of the disappointment or jubilation — depending on which side of the issue you were on — PCUSA officials have been quick to offer assurances that no pastor would be forced to conduct a same-sex wedding and no church would be forced to host one.
Carmen Fowler LaBerge, president of the Presbyterian Lay Committee, is cautiously optimistic but also hopes pastors and sessions will move quickly to protect themselves. “The language protecting the freedom of conscience is strong but I would recommend that sessions take action now to insure protection from litigation down the road.”
PCUSA Stated Clerk Gradye Parsons made it clear that there was “nothing in the amendment to compel any teaching elder to conduct a wedding against his or her judgment nor a session to host one against its judgment,” in a video posted on the denomination’s web site.
In a letter to the denomination, the 221st General Assembly Moderator Heath Rada and Vice Moderator Larissa Kwong Abazia wrote that the approved language “lifts up the sanctity of marriage and the commitment of loving couples within the church. It also allows teaching elders to exercise their pastoral discretion in officiating weddings and in doing so “… the teaching elder may seek the counsel of the session, which has authority to permit or deny the use of church property for a marriage service.”
Also, the denomination’s Office of the General Assembly (OGA), which Parsons oversees, offered an Advisory Opinion on the approved amendment of W-4.900 – the section of the constitution where definition of marriage can be found.
The opinion said that the new definition of marriage does allow teaching elders to perform marriage services for same-gender couples, “as long as the couple ‘meet the requirements of the civil jurisdiction in which they intend to marry.” But, it continues by stating that:
- “A teaching elder cannot be compelled to perform a marriage service for a same-gender couple.”
- “Sessions may permit the use of church property for the marriage service of a same-gender couple.”
- “Sessions may deny the use of church property for the marriage service of a same-gender couple.”
- While a session can prohibit same-sex marriage from being held on church property, it cannot prohibit the pastor from performing such a service elsewhere. “The pastor cannot compel the session to approve a marriage service nor can the pastor conduct any such service within the church facilities without session approval.”
Even the Covenant Network, a non-profit organization that tirelessly worked on behalf of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer people so that they may be ordained and married in the PCUSA, has offered assurances that no pastor can be compelled to perform a same-sex ceremony.
“We continue to affirm that ministers or sessions whose conscience precludes them from officiating (or hosting) same-gender marriages should not be compelled to do so or in any way disciplined or excluded for those views,” said the organization’s board of directors.
So, for now the authority to marry same-sex people in Presbyterian churches is permissive and not compulsory. “But,” LaBerge commented, “If this is a genuine justice issue, which supporters of marriage redefinition claim, then how long do you think they’re really going to be willing for the denomination to limp along between two opinions? How long can ministers serve together as real colleagues in ministry when some think others are discriminatory hatemongers and on the contrary, some think others are blessing what the Bible calls sin? That’s a lot of tension for an organization to endure for long.”