Almost immediately after the 86th affirmative vote was cast and the language related to marriage was formally amended in the Book of Order the phone started ringing. I have now heard from more than a dozen pastors who received reassuring calls from presbytery representatives saying essentially, “Don’t worry, we know you don’t believe in same-sex marriage and we’re not going to make you perform them.” The very fact that they are receiving such a call is an indication that these pastors have been identified by their presbyteries as “oppositional” on this issue. Some Presbyterian Church (USA) pastors have wondered aloud what they can do to further protect themselves and their local church from the demand to perform a same-sex wedding. They also fear the kind of treatment that Joe Rightmyer received and they wonder when support for same-sex marriage will be Kenyonized .
References to Rightmyer and Kenyon raise the conversation about disciplinary charges but that seems less likely to me than civil litigation. Let me explain using a hypothetical scenario and then offer a “to do” list for those who want to protect themselves and their churches.
Across the U.S. we’re seeing aggressive litigation by same-sex marriage advocates who allege discrimination and unfair trade practice against bakers, florists and private property owners when their weddings are denied because of the sincerely held religious beliefs of the vendors. But this is a church we’re talking about, so the same rules don’t apply, right? Well, maybe.
Here’s the scenario:
- A gay or lesbian couple wants to get married in the little (or grand) idyllic (or iconic) Presbyterian church in your town.
- Your church has allowed non-member weddings in the past and you have a fee schedule that looks pretty much like a secular “rental/use” agreement. (Or, alternatively, you have a really good wedding policy but everyone knows of times when the rules have not been applied, non-members have been allowed to get married, counseling requirements have been waived, and other ministers have been allowed to perform weddings that your policy says have to be performed by your installed pastor.)
- The same-sex couple fills out the paperwork and the session declines their facilities use request.
- The couple brings civil action against the local church in state court alleging an unfair trade practice under state law. They couple that with an ancillary claim for intentional infliction of emotional distress for which they seek substantial damages.
The first call the church makes is to their insurance company. If you do not already have a policy covering such claims you need to get a rider today.
The second call the church makes is to their attorney. Not a member of the church but someone under contract so that attorney-client privilege can be preserved.
The third call the church makes is to the local religion news writer. You want to get ahead of the story before your church and your pastor are made out to be gay-hating discriminatory bigots. Yes, I’m serious.
The best defense for the pastor and local church would be removal to federal court where they can invoke the constitutional right to the free exercise of religion. The big question then is “does the Presbyterian Church (USA) have a sincerely held religious belief in marriage as defined as one man and one woman or does the PCUSA espouse a theology of same-sex marriage?” Although the pastor and local church may not have contemporary denominational policy backing them, they do have 2,000 years of history to draw on. They will also have specific traditional marriage policy and related facilities use policy adopted by the session (this is on the to-do NOW list if not already in place).
PCUSA churches should no longer expect the support of the denomination when such a suit is filed. An activist judge could use the U.S. Supreme Court Boy Scout decision to point to the fact that the denomination no longer holds the discrimination of homosexuals to be part of its belief system, thereby undermining the “genuinely held religious belief” argument.
What you need to do:
1. Sessions should immediately download the Advisory Opinion regarding “Approved Amendment of W-4.9000” and specifically state in a session resolution that they are directing that the church property not be used for same sex “marriages,” and specifically reference their “reliance” on the Advisory Opinion, and append a copy to their minutes.
That advisory language reads:
Will the approved amendment require sessions to allow marriage services for same-gender couples to be held on church property?
No. Sessions may deny the use of church property for the marriage service of a same-gender couple.
Will a session be able to categorically prohibit a marriage service for a same gender couple from being held on church property?
Yes. Under our Constitution, sessions have the authority to make categorical determinations regarding the use of the church’s facilities.
2. The session needs to offer classes through youth and adult education areas stating their view on traditional marriage as a component of living the Christian life, teaching the biblical and confessional view of marriage as between one man and one woman, and countering claims that the texts related to homosexuality are no longer relevant today. Theology Matters has excellent resources.
3. Third – and this is critical – the church website needs to clearly indicate that the church property is a tool for Christian ministry, and that weddings are an act of worship before God, and as such, only traditional weddings will be permitted. They need to specifically state without ambiguity that they do not permit same sex marriages to be performed. This is important because it prevents anyone from making the argument that they were “shocked” to learn later in a process of choosing a wedding venue resulting in a claim of “emotional distress.”
These very public demonstrations of a genuinely held religious conviction regarding marriage are significant as the preclusion of homosexual marriages is in no way a pretext for hate nor discrimination. Marriage is defined as between one man and one woman for Biblically based theological reasons. Again, Theology Matters has numerous resources that could be linked from your church website, used in your adult and youth Christian education areas, and published in your church newsletter.
If you want to resist being compelled against your will to perform same-sex marriages then you need to demonstrate you have a will in regard to traditional marriage.