I am a straight ally who left one denomination for the United Church of Christ (UCC) because of the marriage equality issue. Back in 2005, before I entered the ministry, I felt that I would be a stronger pastor and better reflect God’s light on the world by publicly supporting gay marriage and LGBT ordination. If I had to continue to bite my tongue every time someone asked me what I thought of gay marriage, I could not be an authentic person of faith. In leaving one denomination, I discovered that the United Church of Christ was a denomination who widely opened their arms to people of all sexual orientations and gender expressions and those of us who supported our friends.
In writing this post, I acknowledge that some of you reading this will not agree with my position on gay marriage. In fact, you may be a member of a United Church of Christ and still believe that a marriage is between one man and one woman. (Yes – we have many in our denomination who still believe in this view of marriage. The UCC is filled with people with a variety of perspectives. Being in covenant with one another, we worship God together even if we disagree.)
And then you read that the UCC has filed a lawsuit against the state of North Carolina. What does this mean? Here’s what it could mean to a pastor: with the state’s current law on marriage, a member of the clergy could face jail time if they were to perform a wedding ceremony without filing a certificate for marriage. The clergy member would have to hold back their belief on marriage and religion based on what the state is dictating. Technically, a law like this could open doors which would limit other rituals or care that a pastor deems spiritually necessary.
Think of it this way…
What if there was a law that said that I as your pastor could only do hospital visits Monday through Friday? What if I couldn’t visit you in the hospital as you lay dying on a Saturday? What if you couldn’t have the peace of a pastoral presence in your final few hours because the law told me otherwise?
What if there were laws restricting churches to baptizing people over the age of 12? No child is allowed to be baptized for any reason – including children who may be in hospice care.
What if there was a law that said only men could be ordained? If a church were to hold an ordination ceremony for a woman, those involved would go to prison for two to three months.
What if an elderly man and woman wanted to have a marriage ceremony before God and their families but did not want a legal ceremony in order to protect their estates?
What if your beloved pet dies, and you yearn for closure. However, there was a law in your state that only allowed for humans to have funerals. Any funeral-like ritual that would be held for a pet would be considered illegal, and I could be arrested for giving you the best care possible.
I do not want to be told that I can’t or that I must perform a certain ritual that would bring peace to your lives.
By filing this lawsuit, the United Church of Christ is still not indicating that all members agree or must agree with marriage equality. We will never be a denomination that forces our members or churches to agree on an issue. Instead, I defer to this statement by the Indiana-Kentucky Conference of the United Church of Christ:
For us, as one of the founding religious traditions of this nation, the principle of free exercise of religion is a paramount value. Because we are not a hierarchical church, the freedom of every clergyperson to conduct the rites and sacraments of the Church according to the dictates of conscience is essential to our identity and our faith practice.
The church is protecting our autonomy as individuals and churches within the covenant of our denomination. Through this lawsuit, they are advocating on behalf of your religious freedom. And they are advocating for my religious freedom too. They care about your relationship to God, and they do not want your pastor to have government-forced limitations in the way they give pastoral care. Donald Clark Jr., general counsel of the UCC expressed “We didn’t bring this lawsuit to make others conform to our beliefs, but to vindicate the right of all faiths to freely exercise their religious practices.”
I’m not sure about all of you, but I deeply want to practice my faith based on my relationship with God.
This lawsuit will never force you to believe in marriage equality. It will not force a pastor to perform a same-sex wedding. It won’t force you to love your neighbor who happens to be gay – no matter how much Jesus loves them. You do not have to go to the wedding or even wish them congratulations. The only thing a ruling in favor of this lawsuit will do is continue to protect all of our freedoms so that we may practice our faith as we see fit.
Granted, rituals that hurt another person or oneself (physically, emotionally, spiritually) should continue to be restricted. But a ceremony that includes two people freely making a covenant with one another and presided by an officiant who freely believes in the ritual hurts no one. It is not taking the rights away from anyone else. It’s bringing peace and love into the hearts of the couple and those who are actively part of their lives. I truly believe it spreads more love into our communities.
With this lawsuit, the United Church of Christ still does not talk on behalf of the churches. Instead, the denomination talks to the churches, offering another way of looking faith and expanding the way Christ moves in our world.