Wedding plans: Will same-sex marriages be allowed in metro-east churches?

News-DemocratNovember 30, 2013 

Metro-east religious institutions are now faced with a tough decision: Do they allow same-sex weddings to take place in their buildings, now that it is the law of the land?

The law signed by Gov. Pat Quinn on Nov. 20 allows for religious institutions to choose whether to allow same-sex weddings in their buildings. For some Christian denominations, it's decided at the diocesan, synod or conference level. For others, it's decided by each congregation on its own, or for an entire denomination at a higher level.

For the Catholic faith, the decision is universal: no.

"There will be no (same-sex weddings)," said Kathie Sass, spokesman for the Catholic Diocese of Springfield. "The Catholic Church teaches that marriage is between a man and a woman."

Monsignor John Myler of the Catholic Diocese of Belleville confirmed that the policy is not a diocesan decision, but a worldwide policy for all Catholics that marriage is a lifelong, exclusive union between a man and woman.

"This teaching has nothing to do with denying basic rights to anyone, though it is often framed in such terms," Myler said. "There are many ways whereby the church tries to uphold the basic human rights of all people, but redefining marriage is not one of them. Although there will be no same-sex marriages in the Catholic Church, the Catholic defense of marriage should never be reduced to an attack on gay people."

For other churches and faiths, it can be complicated. While the national Episcopal Church allows same-sex unions to be blessed, it is up to the bishop of each diocese whether to allow it, and if they do, sometimes individual priests or congregations can choose whether they will perform the unions.

Representatives of the Episcopal Diocese of Springfield could not be reached. However, Archdeacon Mark Sluss of the Episcopal Diocese of Missouri said their bishop has authorized same-sex blessings, but only in congregations that have done the discernment process and decided to offer them.

Sluss said that Illinois couples technically could seek a blessing in a St. Louis church that had decided to offer them, but as Missouri does not allow same-sex marriage, it would be a blessing of a civil union. The actual marriage would have to be performed by a judge in Illinois.

For the United Church of Christ, it is up to each individual church to decide whether or not to permit same-sex weddings. Rev. Sheldon Culver, leader of the Illinois South Conference, said their churches have been talking about this issue, and some have conducted same-gender civil unions since that bill was passed several months ago.

"We encourage people to be in any conversation that has an impact on people's lives, when they have been sidelined by our society," Culver said. "We stand as a denomination with those who are oppressed and sidelined by our laws. But it is a conversation that every congregation will make for itself ... and we encourage them to do so. We have resources to help them."

One metro-east church states plainly on its website that its sanctuary is offered for same-sex ceremonies. Rev. Khleber Van Zandt of the First Unitarian Church of Alton said they have been blessing same-sex unions at least as long as his nine years at the church, and longer. He said he believes the next generation of Americans is far less resistant to same-sex marriage than older generations.

"What's incredibly sad to me and to a lot of my congregants is that you're not finding more people willing to do this," Van Zandt said. "When I read the Bible, what I see is an arc of love throughout the entire narrative. If you wanted to pull out particular passages and say, 'This is the law written in stone,' I think a lot of us would have a lot of trouble with most of Leviticus -- we're not even supposed to wear cotton and rayon. People just ignore those other prohibitions and pick what they tend to like."

Van Zandt said the First Unitarian Church of Alton has about three same-sex weddings a year at the church, and he has performed about the same number off-site. He doesn't expect that the rate will step up with the new law, however; there's been a long cultural shift toward secular settings for weddings, he said.

"However, I have read and seen evidence that there are a large number of previously unchurched people who are coming back to churches and temples and mosques, trying to figure out what religion is and might be for them," Van Zandt said. "If the fact that somebody wants to get married leads them back to a religious institution, I'm certainly not opposed to that."

Most other religious institutions in the metro-east have decided not to allow same-sex weddings:

* Rev. Timothy Scharr, Southern Illinois District leader of the Lutheran Missouri Synod: "Scripture says, 'One man, one woman, that is God-created and ordained.' This is a case where the church is finding our faith tested. We must obey God rather than man."

* Bishop Jonathan Keaton of the Illinois Area Office of the United Methodist Church referred to his public statement when the same-sex marriage bill passed in early November, in which he said the Methodist church opposes same-sex marriage and no such weddings will be performed in their churches. However, he said, they affirm that "all persons are individuals of sacred worth, created in the image of God."

* Pastor Myles Holmes of the Collinsville First Assembly of God: "Definitely not. The word of God in the Bible and human history for thousands of years has supported the fact that the best way for children to be raised is in a home with a mother and father in a traditional family."

* Pastor David Amsden of Son-Life Church in Collinsville: "For us, it's not about the homosexual or same-sex unions. In the Bible, there are healthy and unhealthy relationships clearly defined ... Biblically speaking it's one man, one woman."

* Like the Catholics, the Eastern Orthodox church historically opposes same-sex marriage, according to Father Achilles Karathanos of Sts. Constantine and Helen Greek Orthodox Church in Swansea.

"Marriage is at the very core, the union of man and woman into one flesh for reproduction, for unity in marriage and for the raising of children," Karathanos said. "It's also a reflection of Christ and the church as the bridegroom and bride. There's always a male and female ... We see the family as husband and wife with unique roles that cannot be replaced by two husbands or two wives."

* Representatives from the Jewish Federation of Southern Illinois and the Masjid and Islamic Education Center of Belleville could not be reached. However, Faizan Syed of the St. Louis Council on American-Islamic Relations said metro-east Muslims usually go to Missouri to marry.

* The religious center at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville is in a unique position. Officially known as the Center for Spirituality and Sustainability, the center regularly allows weddings to take place in its geodesic dome.

But while the center is located on the SIUE central campus, it receives no funding from the university. Instead, the center is funded through donations and managed by a nonprofit board. In addition, the Catholic Newman Student Union is hosted at the center. Approximately 3,000 of the university's 15,000 students are estimated to be Catholics.

SIUE spokesman Doug McIlhagga said the nonprofit's board is taking the issue of same-sex weddings under consideration, but has not yet made a decision.

Contact reporter Elizabeth Donald at edonald@bnd.com or 239-2507.

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