The New York Times, 6 March 2004

Gay Marriage Licenses Create a Quandary for the Clergy

The Rev. Phyllis Zillhart blessed gay and lesbian couples Sunday at St. Francis Lutheran Church.
Jim Wilson/ The New York Times
The Rev. Phyllis Zillhart blessed gay and lesbian couples Sunday at St. Francis Lutheran Church.



SAN FRANCISCO, March 5 — For three weeks, the grand marble staircase at City Hall has been wedding central in San Francisco, with thousands of gay and lesbian couples lining up to be married by city officials.

But many of the couples are not stopping at the staircase. They are taking their marriage licenses and heading to a church or synagogue for a second ceremony or, in some cases, for an alternative to the civil proceeding.

The decision is driven largely by the religious convictions of the gay couples, clergy members who perform the ceremonies say. But there is also a deeply political undercurrent to the religious weddings that is creating divisions in some institutions, even those with a history of blessing gay and lesbian partnerships.

By getting married with a license in a church or synagogue, many couples are hoping to chip away at opposition to same-sex marriages among religious people, and thereby advance the broader goals of the gay rights movement.

The new marriage licenses in San Francisco are giving gay and lesbian couples here an unprecedented platform to push their cause among congregations that have accepted gay relationships in the past.

"I am looking to help people understand that this is not the Armageddon that President Bush says will occur," Timothy Rodrigues, 41, said after he and Alan Mason, 43, participated in a marriage blessing at St. Francis Lutheran Church in San Francisco. "Being here in church is a very important part of what Alan and I do to honor our relationship, and people should know that."

One of the most difficult questions facing some clergy members is whether to sign the licenses of the gay and lesbian couples. That would amount to an acknowledgment that the marriages are of equal standing with opposite-sex marriages.

In some religious institutions where same-sex blessings have been performed for many years, some reluctant members were tolerant in large part because the blessings were not the equivalent of marriages.

"Now they are being forced to grapple with the issue, there is no question about it," said Stephen S. Pearce, the senior rabbi at Temple Emanu-El, a Reform congregation, where an associate rabbi, a lesbian, is among the city's newlyweds. "It will make it difficult for people who were in fact doing it to do it quietly now that there is actually a civil piece of paper that comes with it."

Leaders at some churches said they were making it up as they went along. With several unresolved legal challenges to the licenses, there is widespread confusion, and anxiety, about how to handle them.

"We are in a whole new world at the moment," said the Rev. Frances Tornquist, the vice dean at Grace Cathedral, an Episcopal church that blesses same-sex unions. "We are not quite ready to make any hard and fast rules."

Some religious leaders opposed to gay marriages see the stepped-up effort to embrace them, which began with a Feb. 12 directive from Mayor Gavin Newsom to issue the licenses, as a serious religious challenge.

"There is a good deal of concern among Catholics and other religious people in this city," said Maurice Healy, a spokesman for the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of San Francisco. "The church has had the same view of homosexuality that it has had for 2,000 years, and I don't think a smash-and-grab play by Mayor Newsom is going to change that. There are many people out there looking for a venue to gather and vent their views."

Some of that venting has already occurred at Bethany United Methodist Church.

The pastor there, the Rev. Dr. Karen Oliveto, was called before a bishop this week after a formal complaint was filed against her for performing a same-sex marriage ceremony in the church. The complaint accused her of "disobedience to the order and discipline of the United Methodist Church" for officiating at the marriage of two men on Feb. 15.

Dr. Oliveto said she was caught off guard by the complaint because she had performed numerous same-sex blessings at the church. Dr. Oliveto said she could face a church trial and lose her pastoral license as a result of the complaint, which she said came from someone outside her congregation.

"The United Methodist Church holds a variety of opinions regarding homosexuality," Dr. Oliveto said. "That is the tension we live with. We are not of one mind."

In addition to the Feb. 15 wedding, Dr. Oliveto performed eight same-sex marriage ceremonies at City Hall and signed all nine marriage licenses.

"For me, we are doing something new in ministry that has never been done before," Dr. Oliveto said. "We have never been able to sign marriage licenses of same-gender marriage couples. The church has a lot to learn in this historical moment."

The Rev. Ruth M. Frost, who officiated on Sunday at the Rodrigues-Mason marriage blessing and 14 others at St. Francis Lutheran Church, was herself married on Feb. 13 to another pastor at the church, the Rev. Phyllis Zillhart. The congregation was expelled from the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America in 1995 after the two women joined the pastoral staff.

"If these marriages hold up to the legal challenges, it will make it very difficult for churches to censure clergy who participate in them," Pastor Frost said. "This pushes the envelope, and I suspect it will embolden congregations who are sympathetic but have not dared to perform blessings."

In Santa Cruz, about 65 miles south of San Francisco, much the opposite happened last month when a lesbian couple who had been married in San Francisco attended a Sunday service at the Santa Cruz Bible Church.

The couple, Doreen C. Boxer and Cynthia Zapata, left the church in tears after winning a contest recognizing the most recently married couple in attendance. Though they had been to the church several times as visitors, the couple's relationship was apparently unknown to the pastor, the Rev. David Gschwend, until they were the last pair left standing in the newlywed contest.

After a moment of stunned silence, the two women were awarded a free dinner at a local restaurant, but Mr. Gschwend later lectured them on the sanctity of marriage.

"We will always have the stand that marriage is for a man and a woman," Mr. Gschwend said in remarks posted on the church's Web site. "We don't apologize for that."

Ms. Boxer, 33, said she was shocked by the experience.

"I had never in my life been attacked in church," she said. "Since then, we have had hate mail and all kinds of nasty messages on the answering machine. Things like, `Go to hell' and `We will stone you' and `Jesus will stone you.' "

The Rev. Dr. Eileen W. Lindner, a religious sociologist and church historian in New Jersey, said people on each side of the issue should expect other incidents of "polarization."

"This thing started out as one hulking animal plodding through the sanctuary, and has now turned into something that approximates the charge of a herd of buffalo," Dr. Lindner said. "There is no end in sight and the dust is so thick you can't even see the count."