The two women were both active in the congregation Southard served at the time, First Church of Waltham, Mass., in the suburbs outside Boston. One of the women led a popular Sunday morning Bible study and was a worship leader, liturgist, and elder. The other was a teacher of a children’s Sunday school class.
Both women had, over the years, struggled in their connection with organized religion. Both had left the church for a time, feeling rejected. One of them “had thought she wasn’t Christian anymore, but when she came to our church and experienced the love of Jesus Christ through the congregation, through the study that she did there of the gospels, she discovered that she too was a beloved child of God, and that enabled her to accept Jesus back into her life,” Southard said in an interview
This was, she said, a committed couple — mature, thoughtful, in love with each other, and involved in leadership at the church. So when the women asked Southard to marry them — and after having obtained the approval of the session — she was happy to say “yes,” and performed the wedding in March 2008.
“To refuse to marry them would have been to give them the message that they were less than others in the congregation, that they were not holy enough to stand in the sanctuary and get married,” Southard said. “That was not a message I could give them. As their pastor. I felt that was an unfaithful message; God’s grace is for all of us.”
Marrying the women was also, in Massachusetts, permissible. Massachusetts was the first of a series of states to make same-sex marriage legal. Same-gender marriages now can be performed in four states: Massachusetts, Connecticut, Iowa, and Vermont. New Hampshire will begin allowing such marriages in January 2010. And the legislature in Maine approved a same-gender marriage bill earlier this year and the governor signed the bill, but its implementation has been delayed because voters will vote in November on whether to rescind it.
Not surprisingly, Southard’s decision to perform the marriage led to a challenge in the courts of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.). On Aug. 22, the Permanent Judicial Commission of Boston Presbytery ruled in her favor — concluding in part that language in the denomination’s Directory for Worship that describes marriage as being between a man and a woman is “descriptive,” and not mandatory.
William Miller, a Massachusetts lawyer representing those who brought the complaint against Southard, declined in a brief telephone interview either to comment or to say if an appeal will be filed.
Whatever happens in this case, however, it’s clear that the decision of some states to legalize same-sex marriage could have significant repercussions for clergy and congregations in those states. Pastors may be asked to perform same-sex marriages — some congregations would welcome that, and others would abhor it. And the General Assembly may well be asked next year to take a position on whether the PC(USA) should allow its ministers to perform weddings for same-sex couples in states where such marriages are legal.
“The decision outlines that there is a new way to look at this, that the landscape is different,” said Sara Taylor, a California lawyer who represented Southard in the Boston Presbytery case.
For at least 400 years, going back to the time of John Calvin, “there has been this interconnection between church and state” regarding marriage, Taylor said. The state sets the rules about who can marry and how; ministers have the authority (among others) to perform marriages.
Southard describes it as a “sharing of authority so to speak in which the state defines the broad parameters of who may marry, and the church then deals with the particular couple,” whether they are willing to participate in premarital counseling, “whether they have the maturity, whether they are ready, and also the spiritual aspects of marriage.”
But “the church has never questioned the right of the state to say, `You have to be 18 years old to get married’ ” or to determine, for example, whether second cousins may marry, Southard said. “We’ve always depended on the state to set the broad parameters of who gets married and who doesn’t.”
Now, in a state that has legalized same-gender marriage, “a pastor has to actively discriminate against certain members of the church in order to refuse to do the wedding,” she said. “That really puts the pastor in an untenable position, because the state is being just. Then, if the pastor is expected by the denomination to say `No,’ the pastor must be more un-just than the state. And our Christian faith says we are to work for justice. So does our Presbyterian church.”
Paul Detterman, executive director of the evangelical group Presbyterians for Renewal, sees it differently. Already, he says, pastors make case-by-case determinations of who they will marry and who they will not; a minister is not obligated to marry a particular couple.
And there are areas in which churches already disagree with the secular law, Detterman said. Just because a state permits casino boat gambling, for example, doesn’t mean that a pastor has to go bless the bow of the new gambling boat, he said.
With more states legalizing same-sex marriage, “this is going to be an increasingly difficult thing for us as followers of Jesus to interpret to our people,” Detterman said. “It’s further evidence of the end of Christendom. … We have to say, `This is legal in this state. But that doesn’t change what Scripture says.’ Sorry, marriage is between a man and a woman” in the eyes of the church.
What seems certain is that, in one way or another, the question will come up before the 2010 General Assembly.
The assembly in 2008 authorized the creation of a special Committee to Study Issues of Civil Unions and Christian Marriage. That committee is continuing its work – and seeking comments from across the denomination, and is due to report back in 2010.
In the meantime, pastors in states that have legalized same-sex marriage are considering where they stand. Some ministers have brought the matter to the session of their congregations, trying to get a sense of where the session stands before a particular couple comes asking to be married.
In a recent survey of more than 2,600 ministers from mainline denominations, only about a third said gay couples should be allowed to marry. That survey, called the Clergy Voices Survey and conducted by Public Religion Research, queried ministers from seven mainline denominations, including the PC(USA).
While two-third supported hate-crimes legislation and protection in the workplace for gays and lesbians, most did not support gay marriage or civil unions – although their support rose to just under half when a caveat was added that no church or minister would be required to perform same-sex services in contradiction to their own beliefs.
A Washington Post/ABC News poll released in April 2009 found that just under half of Americans (49 percent) say they support gay marriage, with 47 percent opposed.
For Southard, who is now retired, a decision not to marry this particular couple would have violated her own beliefs and the ethos of that congregation.
This is a small congregation, she said, which intentionally ministers to the homeless, to recovering addicts, and to gays and lesbians, as well as transgendered people. “People come from miles away,” Southard said, “because they haven’t found another church where they feel as welcomed.”
“We had two people who were very important, central to the life of the congregation,” she said. “When they got engaged, everybody rejoiced with them. … Of course the wedding was going to be at the church.”
And Southard said she performed the wedding in May 2008 as a marriage. “I was not blessing a civil union and calling it a marriage. It is a marriage,” under Massachusetts law.
But Southard said she also did not feel compelled to marry the couple just because the law permits it. In this case, she felt it was the right thing to do. But she also says that “I don’t think the church should be in a position of saying to a pastor `You must marry this particular couple,’” or that pastors who don’t agree with same-sex marriages should be compelled to perform them.
On that, she and Detterman would agree.
Detterman said that when couples approach him seeking to be married, he often starts by asking them why they want to be married in the church. If their answers show they are seeking a greater connection to a congregation and a life of faith, he will usually start working with them in premarital counseling. If the answer is, “I’ve always wanted a big church wedding and yours is the biggest church in town” — an answer he’s actually been given in real life — he would decline.
If a same-sex couple approached a minister asking to be married in a state where such marriages are legal, Detterman said it would be appropriate for a pastor to explain why he or she does not view such marriages as following what the Bible teaches.
He might say: “We’re glad you found love. We hope this commitment works for you. We just can’t do the ceremony here.”