Laurie A. McNeill, a pastor in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), did not violate the denomination’s Book of Order when she was married to another woman in Massachusetts in 2009, a church court has ruled.
The General Assembly Permanent Judicial Commission, the highest court in the PC(USA), ruled Oct. 28 not to sustain any of the charges brought in a disciplinary case filed against McNeill after she married Lisa Gollihue, even though the PC(USA) constitution defines Christian marriage as being between a man and a woman.
A United Church of Christ minister married McNeill and Gollihue, a lawyer, in October 2009 in an Episcopal church in Massachusetts, where same-gender marriage is legal. The minister who performed the wedding was a longtime friend who grew up with McNeill in North Carolina, where they belonged to the same youth group in a Presbyterian congregation.
At the time of the wedding at issue in the judicial commission’s ruling, McNeill was pastor of Central Presbyterian Church in Montclair, N.J. That congregation voted in 2010 to dissolve its pastoral relationship with her, and she now is pastor of a yoked congregation in New York state.
The ruling of the General Assembly Permanent Judicial Commission illustrates the complexity of the PC(USA)’s stance involving same-gender marriage.
Because the wedding was not performed in a Presbyterian church or by a Presbyterian pastor, the PC(USA)’s Directory for Worship does not apply, the court ruled.
McNeill, while calling herself married, made it clear that the PC(USA) did not recognize her marriage.
Two members of the commission, in a concurring decision, state that while the church’s polity at the time required church officers to practice either fidelity in marriage between a man and a woman or chastity if they were single, “there was no evidence of sexual activity here.”
The concurring opinion from Barbara Bundick and Helen Huffington states that “while it is tempting to assume that ‘happily married’ persons are engaging in sexual activity, it would be inappropriate to reach a guilty verdict exclusively on a presumption,” and that question was not resolved by either the presbytery or synod courts whose decisions were appealed.
Another concurring opinion, from Meta Cramer, agreed with the court’s conclusions – stating that an argument can’t be made “without absurd consequences” that the Directory of Worship applies to worship services held outside the Presbyterian church.
But Cramer wrote that she found it troubling that McNeill “succeeded in doing for herself” what she could not do for others – participate in a marriage that is legal under civil jurisdiction even if not recognized by the PC(USA).
In a dissenting opinion, Flor Vélez-Díaz and Robin Roberts wrote that it does not make sense that a church officer could separate his or her life as being partly inside and partly outside church life – “or as was argued in this case, single in the eyes of the church and married in the eyes of the state.”
As it has done before, the commission pleaded for more clarity from the General Assembly regarding how the denomination should handle same-gender marriages.
“The case illustrates the tortuous place in which the PC(USA) finds itself on the matter of same-gender marriage,” the ruling states.
The section of the PC(USA) constitution dealing with marriage “did not anticipate the range of issues facing the church today surrounding same-gender relationships. In light of the number of cases coming before this Commission and the convoluted grounds upon which cases are brought and decided, it would be beneficial for the church to provide a definitive position regarding participation of officers in same-gender ceremonies whether civil or religious.”