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Many United Methodists agree that the U.S. Supreme Court ruling legalizing same-sex marriage likely will fuel a longtime denominational debate on the church's position on homosexuality. File photo by Clayton Childers, United Methodist Board of Church and Society

File photo by Clayton Childers, United Methodist Board of Church and Society

Many United Methodists agree that the U.S. Supreme Court ruling legalizing same-sex marriage likely will fuel a longtime denominational debate on the church's position on homosexuality.

Same-sex marriage ruling adds to church debate

By Heather Hahn
June 26, 2015 | NASHVILLE, Tenn. (UMNS)

United Methodists had varied reactions to the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling that establishes same-sex civil marriage as a constitutional right.

But many United Methodists agree on one thing: The decision likely will escalate a longtime denominational debate on the church's position on homosexuality. Church law bans clergy from performing same-sex marriages and forbids churches from hosting such ceremonies.

The 5-4 ruling in Obergefell v. Hodges dealt with two questions: Does the U.S. Constitution allow states to prohibit same-gender marriage and can states refuse to recognize the marriages of gay couples who wed in another state? To both questions, the majority said states must recognize same-sex marriage.

“The limitation of marriage to opposite-sex couples may long have seemed natural and just, but its inconsistency with the central meaning of the fundamental right to marry is now manifest,” said the majority opinion written by Justice Anthony Kennedy.

The decision combines four cases brought by 14 couples and two men whose partners are deceased. The announcement came on the anniversary of two other landmark decisions — the 2003 Lawrence v. Texas, which effectively decriminalized same-sex behavior, and the 2013 Windsor v. United States, which established that same-sex married couples must receive equal treatment under federal law.

The ruling will not take effect immediately because the court gives the losing side roughly three weeks to ask for reconsideration.

Reactions to ruling

Some United Methodists expect this week's ruling to be part of the discussion when General Conference, the denomination’s top lawmaking assembly, meets next year in Portland, Oregon.

“I think it will have bearing, and I think it will put a lot of people in the middle,” said the Rev. Sky McCracken, a district superintendent in western Kentucky. He will be part of the Memphis Conference’s delegation to General Conference.

“I think it will be difficult because people will have a hard time deciding between what the law of the land says and what the doctrine of the church is.”

However, the Rev. Thomas Lambrecht thinks the ruling won’t matter much to General Conference delegates. He is vice president and general manager of Good News, an unofficial United Methodist advocacy group that supports the denomination’s teachings on homosexuality.

“Most of the delegates who would favor retaining the church’s current position on marriage do so out of deep conviction and understand that the church is at different times and various points at odds with the culture in which it lives,” he said. “Our commitment to biblical truth does not depend upon judicial affirmation by the Supreme Court of this or any other nation.”

McCracken added that there some areas that already exist where church teachings and civil laws differ. He noted that both capital punishment and abortion are legal but United Methodists challenge both.

At the heart of much of the sexuality debate for United Methodists, as McCracken noted, is United Methodists’ varied interpretation of Scripture.

For Angie Cox, a United Methodist in Ohio, the ruling means she can legally marry her partner in their home state.

“This is an important piece of not only recognition of our basic human rights, but it also affords many legal protections and benefits that male-female couples have enjoyed for years,” she said. “For us, it legally affirms a 16-year-commitment in the eyes of our state.”

Like other church members, Cox expects The United Methodist Church to continue to struggle with how best to minister with gays and lesbians.

Longtime court observers are calling the Obergefell decision one of the most significant in court history.

Before the ruling, 36 states and the District of Columbia legally recognized same-gender marriage. Earlier in this court term, on Oct. 6, the Supreme Court declined to review appeals of court rulings allowing same-sex marriage in five states. That move effectively extended same-gender civil marriage from 19 to 30 states. This week's ruling affects all 50 states.

"The law does not require anyone to violate their conscience of what God has called them to do, or their theological understanding," said San Francisco Area Bishop Warner H. Brown Jr., in a statement. Brown is the president of the United Methodist Council of Bishops.

"But, if we seek to be an inclusive church that serves all of our parishioners, and all of our neighbors, we will have to consider how we treat all people equally."

No immediate impact on the church

As a practical matter, the ruling does not touch church teachings or practice. Clergy of any tradition still have the legal right to decline performing a wedding for whatever reason, as they do now.

“The First Amendment ensures that religions, those who adhere to religious doctrines, and others have protection as they seek to teach the principles that are so fulfilling and so central to their lives and faiths,” the opinion noted.

Douglas Laycock, a professor of law and religious studies at the University of Virginia School of Law, told United Methodist News Service that gay-rights advocates “pretty much conceded that clergy don’t have to do weddings.”

“They keep escalating their demands as they win, but I think that concession is likely to last,” said Laycock, considered a leading authority on the law and religious liberty.

The Rev. Susan Henry-Crowe, top executive of the United Methodist Board of Church and Society, said the Supreme Court ruling upholds both religious liberty and equal protection of citizens under the law. Her agency is charged with promoting the denomination's social teachings.

She noted that the denomination's Book of Discipline also calls for human rights and liberties for all people "regardless of sexual orientation." 

"Civil society must ensure these equal protections for every person under the law," she said. "The General Board of Church and Society affirms and upholds in prayer the work of The United Methodist Church as it continues to discern its understanding of marriage. As a denomination with members in many countries and cultures, we are thankful for all nations where religious liberty allows for the freedom for all persons to live out their faith together according to their conscience."

Marriage and the Church

The Book of Discipline, the denomination’s law book, defines marriage as a covenant “that is expressed in love, mutual support, personal commitment, and shared fidelity between a man and a woman.”

United Methodist News Service asked two church scholars about what impact the Supreme Court ruling might have on church discussions regarding marriage.

The Rev. David F. Watson is academic dean, vice president and associate professor of the New Testament at United Methodist United Theological Seminary in Dayton, Ohio.

“In the U.S., such a ruling may help us to clarify our thinking about the relationship between the civil institution of marriage and the Christian rite of marriage,” he said. “In order to do this, we will have to think more explicitly and theologically about issues such as marriage, sex and procreation. Such deeper engagement can only be a good thing.”

He is helping draft General Conference legislation aimed at increasing accountability related to church teaching on homosexuality. Specifically, the legislation seeks to ease the way for United Methodist clergy and congregations who disagree with that stance to leave the denomination.

The Rev. Ted A. Campbell, associate professor of church history at Southern Methodist University’s Perkins School of Theology, offered a slightly different take.

“Christians came late to the business of blessing marriages,” he noted. “Even in the Middle Ages, marriages were often celebrated outside of the walls of the church.”

Even now, he said, clergy mainly act as witnesses to a marriage covenant. It is the political state that actually grants license, or permission, to marry.

He suggests a couple of ways General Conference, the denomination’s global lawmaking body, can respond: a) agree broadly on a specific response to the issue of same-sex unions and marriages that will work across national boundaries; b) leave such decisions to local bodies (e.g., conferences or congregations).

“Polarization on this issue makes option 'b’ less practical,” Campbell said, “but that still leaves the issue of finding widespread consensus.” 

Part of ongoing church debate

Debate about the church’s stance has surfaced at each General Conference since 1972. Since that year, the church has stated in its Book of Discipline that all individuals are of sacred worth but the practice of homosexuality “is incompatible with Christian teaching.”

General Conference, which meets every four years, has consistently voted to keep that language and over the years has expanded on restrictions against gay clergy and same-gender unions. Officiating at same-sex unions is a chargeable offense under church law. The Book of Discipline states that marriage is between a man and a woman.

Clergy convicted in a church court can face a loss of clergy credentials or lesser penalties. The Book of Discipline also allows for complaints against clergy who officiate at same-gender unions to be resolved without a trial. This has happened in a number of recent complaints.

A day before the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling, groups of United Methodist clergy and laity in Texas each posted an open letter to that state’s five United Methodist bishops calling on them to avoid church trials for clergy officiating at same-sex weddings.

The lay letter has more than 1,000 signatures and the clergy letter has more than 150 signers, including ordination candidates and seminary students.

Mellany McDonald-Williams, an active lay leader at St. John’s United Methodist Church in downtown Houston, helped write the lay letter.

“The mere possibility of marriage equality in the United States was for me an indication that now is the time for the church to equally extend pastoral care to all people, regardless of sexual orientation or gender identity,” McDonald-Williams said in a statement.

Many petitions dealing with human sexuality will go before the 2016 General Conference. 

The Connectional Table, a United Methodist leadership body, is drafting legislation that would remove church law’s prohibitive language against gay weddings and clergy who are “self-avowed practicing homosexuals.”

In contrast, members of Good News and others are proposing legislation that would impose mandatory penalties for those who officiate at same-sex weddings. A number of annual conferences also are sending petitions to General Conference that address questions of sexuality from various perspectives.

The 2016 General Conference will have 864 delegates, about 42 percent of whom will come from church regions in Africa, Europe and the Philippines. It will be up to this global body to decide what church law says in the future.

Hahn is a multimedia news reporter for United Methodist News Service. Contact her at (615) 742-5470 or newsdesk@umcom.org.

Read full coverage of sexuality issues in the church and The United Methodist Church stance on sexuality.