Tuesday, April 22, 2003

Pastor rebuked in gay-marriage case

But penalty the lightest possible

By Erica Solvig
The Cincinnati Enquirer

A Mount Auburn Presbyterian minister was found guilty Monday of marrying gays and lesbians in the denomination's first ecclesiastical trial dealing with the church constitutional issue.

The Rev. Steve Van Kuiken, with his wife Debbie beside him, receives a rebuke from Presbyterian Elder Barry Harrison.
(Michael E. Keating photo)
| ZOOM |
The Rev. Stephen Van Kuiken received the least severe punishment available, a public rebuke saying he cannot continue the ceremonies.

The minister says he will appeal and continue the practice - even if it means additional charges against him.

A seven-member Presbytery of Cincinnati commission acquitted the 44-year-old pastor of ordaining homosexuals as elders and deacons.

The commission, comprised of church ministers and elders, voted 6-1 on both charges. The dissenting member said Van Kuiken not only should have been found guilty of both charges, but should have received a harsher punishment - at least temporary removal from office.

The commission, headed by a retired minister, the Rev. Martha Cross Sexton, issued a three-page ruling laying out its reasoning and a three-page dissent, written by Elder Charles Brown of Wyoming Presbyterian Church. Sexton had no further public comment Monday.

Van Kuiken left Blue Ash Presbyterian Church, where the verdict was released, with mixed feelings.

"This only leaves me in a state of limbo," said Van Kuiken, minister at Mount Auburn for about 31/2 years. "They know I'm going to continue to do it. I just have to be true to myself."

The 280 members of Mount Auburn Presbyterian - one-third of whom are homosexual - support him in that. The church has had an inclusive ministry policy for more than a decade and has stated it would not recognize Van Kuiken's removal, if that's what the commission had ordered.

"They sidestepped the issue," church member Karen McNulty of Mason said after the verdict. "It did not address the heart of it."

In its decision, the commission said it could not find Van Kuiken guilty of ordaining gays and lesbians because the congregation's ruling board - not the minister - has the responsibility of determining who is ordained.

Presbyterians have been debating the ordinations of homosexuals for more than three decades, and the discussion of same-sex marriage began heating up in the early 1990s, according to Mark Tammen, director of constitutional services for the Presbyterian Church (USA), based in Louisville. The denomination has 2.5 million members nationwide.

Presbyterians do not allow same-sex ceremonies to be called marriages. The Book of Order, the denomination's constitution, has been defined by many to prohibit sexually active gays and lesbians from being ordained.

"I think there probably are some unanswered questions," Tammen said. "But it's the decision of one presbytery commission, it's church court. It is technically binding only upon Steve Van Kuiken ... though it could be used in arguments for other cases."

More than 20 complaints similar to the ones Van Kuiken faced are pending nationwide. His was the first to go before a church court.

It's still too early to assess the political ramifications of Monday's verdict, said the Presbyterian Church USA's Tammen. "When you think about church history and policies, it took them 400 years to write the Nicene Creed.'

A couple dozen congregation members sat behind Van Kuiken during the reading of the ruling Monday. Several expressed dissatisfaction with the verdict, saying it failed to send a clear message on the issues of ordaining homosexuals and same-sex marriages.

E-mail esolvig@enquirer.com

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