Thursday, March 15, 2001

Vote defeats ban on same-sex rites

Presbyterians can make own choices

By Richelle Thompson, The Cincinnati Enquirer
and The Associated Press

        NEW YORK — Presbyterian ministers and churches can decide individually whether they will officiate at same-sex commitment ceremonies.

        A national proposal to ban blessing rituals for same-sex couples in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) was defeated in balloting tabulated early Wednesday. The Presbytery of Cincinnati cast one of the deciding ballots Tuesday, supporting the status quo and voting against the proposal.

        The decision leaves clergy free to conduct such ceremonies, as long as they are not confused with marriages.

        The vote is a victory for the liberal side in the conflict over homosexuality that has divided U.S. Presbyterians for 24 years. This is the second time in seven years the church has struck down proposals to ban same-sex unions. The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) has 3.6 million members.

        The result was announced on the Internet news site, which has closely monitored the voting. The official count at denominational headquarters in Louisville, Ky., lags behind, but both sides have acknowledged for days that the proposal was dead.

        Tristate reaction to the decision was mixed. The Rev. Steve Van Kuiken of Mount Auburn Presbyterian praised the vote.

        “We obviously believe that the same benefits for intimate caring relationships should be available and recognized for gay and lesbian folks as well as straight folks,” he says. His church has held same-sex ceremonies for years and openly disobeys the denomination's ban on sexually active gay and lesbian elders.

        There's still more work to be done, he cautions. “The church is slowly evolved through the century. But it's like a glacier. This is just another small movement.”

        But the Rev. Pat Hartsock of College Hill Presbyterian Church considers the decision a setback.

        “I don't want to be thought of as homophobic,” he says. “I think the church should be full of truth and grace ... (The church should be) able to call something a sin and yet still not condemn and wound peo ple.”

        The decision is inconsistent with other church teaching, the Rev. Mr. Hartsock says. Consider the denomination's governing rules, which dictate that actively practicing sinners, which the Rev. Hartsock says includes gays and lesbians, cannot be ordained. Yet the church also says same-sex unions can be performed.

        The decision “puts us at odds with ourselves as a denomination,” he says.

        Under the Presbyterian system, the measure to ban same-sex ceremonies was passed by the national assembly last June and sent to 173 regional legislatures, known as “presbyteries,” for ratification. A simple majority of 87 presbyteries was needed for passage, but the count now stands at 63 in favor and 87 opposed, defeating the measure.

        Hans Cornelder, who runs the nonpartisan Presbyweb site, said most Presbyterians oppose same-sex rituals but the proposal lost because those voting felt it intruded too much on the powers of local clergy and congregations.

        “Very few people in the presbytery debates have spoken in favor of blessing same-sex unions,” he said.

        For two local pastors, the vote was less about same-sex unions than about the individual church's right to make its own decisions.

        “God is lord of our conscience,” says the Rev. Clarence Wallace of Carmel Presbyterian Church in Avondale. “We cannot legislate people's personalities or points of view.”

        That doesn't mean there will be a flurry of gay and lesbian weddings, says the Rev. Mr. Wallace. He's never been asked to perform a same-sex union. And in Avondale, he says, there are other, more pressing issues of poverty, hunger and unemployment, than spending a great deal of time arguing over the issue of same-sex unions.

        The Rev. Martha Cross Sexton of Kennedy Heights Presbyterian Church was pleased with the decision too.

        The amendment was poorly worded, she says, and would have made it difficult to offer pastoral care to many groups, not only gays and lesbians. For instance, the language may have called into question whether it was appropriate to baptize a child born out of wedlock.

        Further, “The Presbyterian church traditionally has trusted its pastors and sessions (governing boards) to make responsible, spirit-directed decisions about care for people in their congregations,” says the Rev. Ms. Sexton. The amendment suggests “we have to be micro-managed. ... It would have had a very bad effect on our way of governing the church.”


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