Continuing point of discussion: Some churches open their doors to same-gender marriages, others do not
"It's about time," was the response of one same-sex couple now planning to wed in September.
In May, after a U.S. federal judge ruled as unconstitutional the state's ban on same-sex marriages, the state became one of the last Northeast region states to legalize same-sex marriages. In 2014, there are 20 states where same-sex marriages are legal.
As a result of the recent ruling, some local churches are opening their doors to wed same-sex couples. Other churches, however, are not. Their leaders say the state's law goes against Christian teaching and they will uphold the separation of church and state that exempts them from the law.
While top church officials in the Evangelical Lutheran, the Presbyterian, the United Church of Christ and the Moravian churches support the legality of same-gender marriages, all are mindful that no congregation will be forced to allow same-sex couples to wed or to call a gay or lesbian person to serve as pastor.
After 25 years in a long-term, committed relationship, Michael and his partner will exchange vows in a small, family-only service in Trinity UCC of Coplay.
Rev. Steve Hummel, pastor of the Trinity UCC's 150-member congregation, said his church has received certification from the UCC Conference of National Offices as an official "open and affirming congregation."
Hummel said his church includes all people embracing differences of sexual orientation, gender, age, mental and physical ability, as well as racial, ethnic or socio-economic background.
Michael and his partner belong to another UCC church. The couple chose Trinity because of the church's official certification as "open and affirming" to marrying same-sex couples. Their own UCC congregation was not so accepting of marrying them, although it has been accepting of their long-term, committed relationship.
The couple want a simple and tasteful wedding service because they believe that marriage is a vow and a commitment that deserves to be done in church.
"It will be semi-casual; we'll wear suits with matching ties," Michael said of the wedding plans.
Supporting the unconstitutionality of the state's previous ban on same-gender marriages, Michael said, "It's the fundamental right of everyone to get the benefits they are entitled to." With the official marriage license, same-gender couples are eligible for Social Security survivor benefits, tax benefits, inheritance and visitation rights.
The United Church of Christ's form of government has led the way on the question of equality for same gender couples for almost a decade. The separation of church and state makes marriage, especially same-gender marriages, one of the most challenging issues for church discussion.
Rev. Alan Miller of the Penn Northeast Conference of the United Church of Christ said that while UCC pastors have not all embraced the state's legalization of same-gender marriages, each pastor and each congregation of the 138 UCC congregations will decide whether to allow these marriages.
Miller said a congregation may prohibit same-gender marriages in its sanctuary, but the congregation's pastor may still legally marry the couple in another setting.
While not binding on UCC Conferences and local churches, in July 2005, the 25th General Synod of the UCC adopted an equal marriage rights for all resolution. This resolution looks at the implications of marriage for individuals, families and the community. Its intent was to get people of faith talking about the purposes of marriage and its evolution and to explore the church's and the state's role.
Bishop Samuel Zeiser of the Northeastern Pa. Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church said he understands that not all members of the church's congregations will support same-gender marriages but, to date, he has not heard any negative comments. Zeiser said some pastors have called for clarification of the state law. He knows of perhaps three same-sex couples who have requested to be married in the Evangelical Lutheran Church.
One of 65 Synods in nine geographic regions, the Northeastern Pennsylvania Synod Evangelical Lutheran Church has 275 congregations. As of 2012, there were close to four million baptized members in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA).
Zeiser said the ELCA has had an inclusive policy towards same-gender relationships since 2009, when the Churchwide Assembly voted to allow congregations to call from their roster ordained pastors in lifelong, monogamous, same-gender relationships to serve as ELCA associates in ministry, clergy, deaconesses and ministers.
While questions have also arisen as to what, if any, changes need to be made to the wedding rite, Zeiser said that the state's marriage application and present wording in the church's wedding liturgy will suffice to make the marriage legal.
In June, the Presbyterian Church (USA) became the second largest Christian denomination to affirm same-sex marriage, after the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.
Gwenn Noel, First Presbyterian Church-Bethlehem's communications director, said that the congregation will meet to process the General Assembly's decisions.
"We will continue (as a church) to be welcoming to all, as well as Christ-centered and Scripture-based," Noel added.
One highlight of the June 21st General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church was the approval of a recommendation to allow teaching elders to perform "any such marriage they believe the Holy Spirit calls them to perform" where legal by state law. While up to the pastor's or congregation's discretion, this approval of same-gender marriages opens the way to revise the Book of Order language to define marriage as a "unique commitment between two people, traditionally a man and a woman."
After the overturning of the state's ban on same-gender marriages, the Moravian Church's Northern Province approved a proposal to allow gays and lesbians to be ordained and to create a religious ceremony for same-gender couples.
The 2014 Synod of the Moravian Church proposal also includes provisions to revise the Northern Province's Book of Order to reflect the changes. The Synod is the highest court of law of the Moravian Church Northern Province.
"Moravians understand that God's call to us is to welcome all people, because God's embrace is far larger than our capacity to imagine," wrote the Rev. Elizabeth D. Miller, president of the Provincial Elders' Conference of the Moravian Church Northern Province.
This decision affects only those churches in the Northern Province, the largest of the denomination's three provinces in the United States and Canada. Based in Bethlehem, the Northern Province includes more than 21,000 members in 93 congregations in 13 U.S. states and two Canadian provinces. The province spans New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Maryland, Ohio, Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Minnesota, Wisconsin, North Dakota, California, Ontario, Alberta, and Washington, D.C.
This resolution supports earlier resolutions regarding the Moravian Church's view of homosexual persons. For more than 40 years, the Moravian Church has discussed the issue of the life and service of lesbian and gay people in our church and in our culture, Miller added.
But the United Methodist Church and its Book of Discipline, the denomination's law book, continues to proclaim the practice of homosexuality incompatible with Christian teaching. The Rev. Frank Schaefer of the Iona United Methodist Church in eastern Pennsylvania was suspended and defrocked after officiating at the same-gender marriage of his son and his son's long-time partner. Schaefer violated the church's law which states marriage is between a man and a woman. Shaefer recently had his ministerial credentials reinstated due to an error in church law regarding revoking a minister's credentials.
Along with the United Methodist Church, the Roman Catholic Church also upholds the teaching that marriage is between a man and a woman.
Following the words of Pope Francis, the Roman Catholic church's chief spokesperson, the Pennsylvania Catholic Conference (PCC) released a statement that does not support the state's redefinition of marriage. The PCC is hopeful that the state law will be appealed.
According to Pope Francis: "The image of God is the married couple: the man and the woman; not only the man, not only the woman, but both of them together." Church officials will uphold the principles that marriage is a covenant between a man and a woman and that every child has a basic right to a mother and a father.
The Catholic Church, which comprises more than three million Catholics in 10 Pennsylvania dioceses, will hold itself exempt from the state's same-gender marriage law.
For church members in these diverse denominations, the role of gays and lesbians in their churches will be a continuing point of discussion and sometimes disagreement. Most pastors are hopeful that members who do not support the proposals will agree to disagree.