In the case of Thomas E. Morgan, complainant vs. Session, First Presbyterian Church, Asheboro, N.C., respondent, the PJC of Salem Presbytery ruled that “A categorical decision by the session not to permit any marriage by a couple of the same-sex on church property without consideration of their commitment to each other, their understanding of the nature of the marriage covenant and their commitment to living their lives together according to its values is inconsistent with the process required by W-4.9001-9006.”
Furthermore, according to the commission’s ruling, since marriage is no longer limited in the PCUSA to between a man and a woman – instead the definition is between “two people,” – pastors in the denomination are required to “give instruction to any couple requesting a Christian marriage. This includes same-sex couples. … W-4.9003 affirmatively requires the teaching elder to instruct and evaluate each couple who seeks a Christian marriage. This is not optional.”
Contrary to the ruling, W-4.9006 simply and explicitly reiterates that no teaching elder is required to perform any marriage service, and no session is required to permit a marriage to be performed on church property if the marriage service is, “contrary to the teaching eider’s or the session’s discernment of the Holy Spirit and their understanding of the Word of God.”
President of the Presbyterian Lay Committee, Carmen Fowler LaBerge, commented that “remember when the liberals assured the conservatives that this was not an attempt to bind their conscience? Remember the assurances about protection of the conscience of pastors and the liberty of sessions to govern the use of local church property? This PJC is saying that those were all lies and that the Office of the General Assembly is the chief offender.”
The commission’s decision states that the session’s authority to prohibit a marriage on church property or a pastor’s right to refuse to perform a marriage is “granted in the context of a process that requires the teaching elder to counsel with every couple seeking Christian marriage whether they are of the same sex or not.”
“By adopting and publishing a policy that categorically excludes any same sex couple from being married on church property, the session has contradicted the policy requiring inquiry and counseling for any couple seeking a Christian marriage, including same sex couples. The logical effect of this policy will be to discourage any same sex couple desiring Christian marriage to seek counsel from the teaching elder called by the congregation or to seek permission to be married on church property regardless of any other circumstances. A categorical prohibition of same sex marriage on the property constitutes a categorical discrimination against same sex couples who present themselves for consideration for marriage in the congregation,” the ruling said.
On Dec. 3, 2015, Morgan filed the case arguing that the session’s policy adopted on Sept. 16, 2016 discriminated against a class of people based on their sexual orientation. The policy stated:
Policy Regarding Same-Sex Marriage Services at FPC
We, the Session of First Presbyterian Church, Asheboro, NC, led by the Holy Spirit and called to an identity of compassionate faithfulness, are bound by the authority of scripture and the historical confessions of the PC(USA). The Session will exercise due discretion in affirming marriage service requests, but affirms that all marriage services conducted at First Presbyterian Church shall reflect the understanding that Christian marriage is a covenant between a man and a woman. All marriage services conducted on the property of First Presbyterian Church, Asheboro, NC must be approved in advance by the Session.
Members of the Session sought guidance from the Holy Spirit and the Holy Scriptures through an extended period of prayer and study making this decision. However, members of the Session acknowledge with humility and respect that others in our congregation and the larger church read the same passages and find a different understanding of what Scripture calls us to do. Indeed, not all members of the Session are in full accord on these issues, but have worked faithfully to discern the best way forward for us together. The Session’s decision was made in regard to Christian marriage and is unrelated to membership or other participation within First Presbyterian Church, Asheboro, NC.
At least one party to the couple to be married must be a church member, or the child or grandchild of a church member.
Advisory Opinion has no authority
The session based its decision to approve a marriage policy partly on an advisory opinion published in March 2015 by the Office of the General Assembly which answered the question “Can the session make a categorical prohibition of same-gender weddings in its building?,” by saying “Yes. Nothing has changed about the authority of the session with regard to the use of the church building.”
The commission’s ruling said that the document doesn’t constitute an Authoritative Interpretation of the Constitution, therefore “these pronouncements have no authority.”
The General Assembly has not considered the issue of whether a church session can make such a policy, the ruling said, adding that the commission was “disturbed that this information has been offered for the guidance of congregations in the PC(USA) apparently both at the time when the presbyteries were voting on whether or not to ratify the amendment to W-4.9000 and after it was ratified up until today.
LaBerge commented that “this presbytery PJC is accusing the Office of the General Assembly of lying to the church during the last General Assembly, throughout the 14F amendment process and that the OGA persists in the lie today. That’s a serious charge. This PJC decision, if it is upheld, makes it all the more difficult for individuals, pastors and congregations who hold that marriage is rightly between one man and one woman to remain in the PCUSA.”
The church has not yet decided whether or not it will appeal the decision to the Synod PJC.
Related article: PJC Ruling: Why the Court of Public Opinion Is the Only One that Matters, by Carmen Fowler LaBerge