Tuesday, July 05, 2005

Church Support Critical For Same Sex Marriage Approval

As has been the case throughout the history of the United States, the support of our nation's churches has been a critical component of all civil rights advancements. Without a shift in the opinion of churches, the struggle to end slavery would have taken much longer and the extent of the human tragedy would have been even worse than it was during our nation's only civil war. Without a shift in the opinion of our churches towards the role of woman in religion and society, women would have continued to be treated as second class citizens throughout the twentieth century. And without the shift in the opinion of churches, the struggle for African-Americans to obtain full equality would have taken far longer than the century it took to obtain a federal civil rights law. Churches play such a critical role in civil rights because the vast majority of Americans are church-going people, and prevailing church dogma has traditionally been the basis for legalized discrimination against classes of persons in our society.

More recently, many mainline Christian denominations have adopted policies opposing discrimination against persons on the basis of their sexual orientation and have urged the adoption of civil rights laws to prevent discrimination, even while they opposed same sex marriages. The support of these churches have undeniably aided in the passage of human rights laws throughout the country. Where efforts to pass such laws have failed, such as Indianapolis, the failure has been largely attributed to opposition from Christian fundamentalists. The impact of this week's decision by the United Church of Christ to officially change church policy to support same sex marriages cannot be understated. The UCC, which boasts national membership of more than 1.3 million Americans, was also one of the first mainline Christian churches in this country to shift its opinion on slavery and equality for women. The UCC's rationale for its new position as stated in the resolution was as follows:

"[The church has historically stood with the disenfranchised. From support by our predecessor denominations for abolition of slavery to recognition of woman as equal partners in religious leadership, we have consistently honored the biblical injunction to support the 'least of these'. We hold that, as a child of God, every person is endowed with worth and dignity that human judgment cannot set aside. We believe that recognition of sacred joining of individuals is deserving of serious, faithful discussion by persons of faith, taking into consideration the long, complex history of marriage and family life, layered as it is by cultural practices, economic realities, political dynamics, religious history, and biblical interpretations . . . . The Bible affirms and celebrates many human expressions of love and partnership. The Biblical understanding of covenant calls us to live as full participants with God in responsible and committed relationships. There are a myriad of family relationships. The underlying call in these relationships is to live in wholeness and responsibility with one another. . . .THEREFORE BE IT RESOLVED that the United Church of Christ call upon its conferences, associations and member churches to enter into prayer, study and conversations regarding marriage, covenanted relationships and equal access to civil marriage for all persons."

As reported in today's Indianapolis Star, the resolution in support of same sex marriages was overwhelmingly approved by the UCC's governing body, receiving the support of eighty percent of the representatives in attendance at the church's 884-member General Synod in Atlanta, Georgia. The Rev. John H. Thomas, president of the United Church of Christ, said with the vote on Independence Day, the rule-making body "acted courageously to declare freedom" according to the Star story. The Star report also stated that "[a] small group of conservative congregations had proposed an alternative resolution defining marriage as between a man and a woman and suggested that supporting gay marriage could lead to the church's collapse." Missing from the Star report of the minority resolution , however, was the language it contained equating same sex marriages to bestiality ala Rep. Woody Burton. The resolution included the following bigoted passage: "Worship, declares that marriage is not to be conferred on bigamous, polygamous, or same-sex unions, or on any union of human and animal (emphasis added), but is to be between one man and one woman with no exceptions. The attitude reflected by the minority resolution reveals the extent of the bigoted views held by fundamentalists who oppose any acceptance of homosexuals on any level. A leading proponent of the minority resolution, Rev. Brett Becker, said of the resolution's passage, "This is truly Independence Day for the UCC -- we have declared ourselves independent from the teachings of Jesus and the clear teachings of Scripture." It might be asked of Mr. Becker where Jesus tells us in the Bible about his own marital status or sexual orientation?

This week's major shift in church policy by the United Church of Christ will likely be the first in a line of denominational policy shifts on the issue of same sex marriage. Protestant churches are run in a comparatively democratic fashion and are sensitive to changing public attitudes on various issues. There will no doubt be many hardline protestant Christian churches who will remain steadfast in their opposition to the recognition of any rights for gays and lesbians; however, as public sentiment continues its shift in favor of gay civil rights, even the hardline churches will eventually be forced to change their views, just as they were with respect to the civil rights of American blacks and women, in order to avoid being marginalized. The Catholic Church too will likely maintain its strong opposition to same sex marriage. Changes in the Catholic Church come about very slowly because of its less democratic form of governance. Speaking recently Pope Benedict XVI in one of his first public statements on the subject called gay marriage "anarchy." Of course, the American public is still awaiting a public apology for the church's mishandling of child sexual abuse by the church's clergy even as the church has paid out more than an estimated billion dollars to settle civil cases in the United States and elsewhere around the world concerning child sex abuse. The Catholic Church risks a complete loss of credibility with the American public on a whole host of issues if it does not deal with growing cries for church reform.

As church views continue to change in favor of equal treatment for gays and lesbians, politicians will no longer be able to hang their hat on "relgious principle" as a basis for legalized discrmination. The UCC's decision this week is of historic proportion. And you can take that to the bank.

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