Metro-East News

July 19, 2014

'Extremely blessed': Two women get married in Belleville church

A Belleville church played host to a familiar scene recently: Aisles lined with flowers, friends and family wiping tears, a beautiful white gown topped with a veil, a dapper black tuxedo and a minister leading the vows.

But it wasn't a typical wedding June 21 at Peace Lutheran Church in Belleville. The wedding of Carol Scott and Darlene Batten might have been the first same-sex wedding in a Belleville church.

"I would say that we feel extremely blessed that we have a church that supports us as individuals, as people, and allowed that to happen," said Carol Scott, 55, a nurse.

She married her partner of four years, Darlene Batten, 50, who works at Menard's.

"The most important thing was that people knew who Carol and Darlene were and not just as a lesbian couple," said the Rev. Bill Pierce, pastor at Peace Lutheran.

The couple has been members of the church for more than two years.

"It wasn't a political statement," Pierce explained. "It was two members of our congregation who people knew and respected, who were getting married."

Pierce explained that Peace Lutheran, as an Evangelical Lutheran Church of America, allowed congregants to speak at length about whether to allow the wedding.

"Our church council voted to endorse Carol and Darlene's decision to have the wedding," he said.

The church has just more than 200 members. "Because we're small, there's more opportunity to talk about it, which I think worked well," Pierce said.

But the wedding was not without conflict at Peace Lutheran.

"We had some members leave," Pierce said.

Scott said, "We do understand that there has been one or two people who have been very against it and potentially will leave the church, but I know that's it not more than one or two people.

"Other than that, the support has been overwhelming," she said.

Since June 1, when the Illinois Religious Freedom and Marriage Fairness Act went into effect, more than 5,000 same-sex couples in Illinois have married or converted their civil unions into marriages, according to a recent survey from the advocacy group Equality Illinois.

* Of St. Clair County's 176 marriage licenses returned in June, 45 were for same-sex weddings. In addition, 33 civil unions were converted to marriages during that month. Marriage licenses are valid for 60 days; 90 marriage licenses for same-sex couples were issued in St. Clair County in June.

* Of Madison County's 187 marriage licenses returned in June, 44 were for same-sex weddings. Also, 59 civil unions were converted to marriages. Licenses were issued for 119 same-sex weddings during that month.

A recent survey of churches in and near Belleville could find no other church that performed same-sex weddings.

Pastor Greg Sutter, of the Westview Baptist Church on Sullivan Drive in Swansea, said there have been no same-sex ceremonies at his church.

"Really, for us, we take what the Bible says pretty straightforward, so that really would not be an option for us," he said.

Likewise, Pastor James Slone at St. Matthew United Methodist Church in Belleville cited "The Book of Discipline of the United Methodist Church" to explain why same-sex marriages were not allowed at his church: "Homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching," the book stated, and "ceremonies that celebrate homosexual unions shall not be conducted by our ministers and shall not be conducted in our churches."

But there are other same-sex weddings happening in St. Clair County with a religious theme.

Four same-sex couples also wed June 21 outside at the Metro East Pride festivities in downtown Belleville.

The Rev. Marek Bozek, a former Roman Catholic priest who is pastor at St. Stanislaus Kostka Church in St. Louis, performed the marriage ceremonies of the four couples.

"In our church, we do not refuse sacraments to anyone who is baptized and qualified to receive the sacraments," he said.

Bozek said every October he blesses animals on St. Francis Day. "If I bless your dog or cat, why wouldn't I bless two people who love each other?"

Bozek excommunicated himself from the Catholic Church when he accepted the position at St. Stanislaus, in violation of canon law, according to the Archdiocese of St. Louis.

The Roman Catholic Church maintains its traditional teaching that marriage is a sacrament between one man and one woman.

"I do realize that not all Catholic churches agree with my stance, but there are more and more Catholics who do agree with this position," Bozek said.

Allen Irby Jr., 38, of St. Louis, is the president of Metro East Pride. He helped organize the weddings.

"We knew we had to do something, and we figured what better way than a big, public wedding right there by the courthouse," Irby said.

The four couples were: Jill Dixon and Lorraine Young, of O'Fallon; Alex Young and Bob Baker, of Alton; Tron Carner and Christopher Roth, of St. Louis; and Walter Burrell and Mark Hicks, of St. Louis.

"It was really amazing, as the couples were walking down the aisles, the sudden raw emotion from the crowd," Irby said. "People were clapping, some were crying. I wasn't expecting that.

"For the LGBT community, it was such a historic occasion," Irby continued. "We were watching and, finally, it was like, 'We're here.'"

Contact reporter Maria Hasenstab at mhasenstab@bnd.com or 618-239-2460.

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