Clergy Charged For Same-Sex Weds

image
AP
In a case reflecting how the controversial issue of same-sex marriage overlaps church and state, two New York State ministers were to be arraigned Monday on misdemeanor charges for marrying same-sex couples.

Reverends Kay Greenleaf and Dawn Sangrey — both of the Unitarian Universalist Church from New Paltz, N.Y. — say they will plead not guilty and are ready to take the case to court.

They're accused of performing marriages of same-sex couples who lacked a civil marriage license. It's the same charge filed against New Paltz Mayor Jason West after he married 25 gay and lesbian couples last month.

Lawyers for the ministers insist what they're doing is legal under the state constitution.

The New Paltz cases are one corner of a nationwide fight between advocates of same-sex marriage pushing to conduct such ceremonies and opponents working to ban them.

The controversy erupted after the highest court in Massachusetts ruled that state's ban on same-sex marriages was unconstitutional, opening the way for gay and lesbian weddings in May. San Francisco's mayor soon opened City Hall to same-sex couples wishing to wed, and thousands did. President Bush then called for a constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage.

On Capitol Hill, Sen. Wayne Allard and Rep. Marilyn Musgrave, both Colorado Republicans, were holding a news conference to make a "major" announcement regarding that amendment on Monday.

To date, most of the wrangling has involved public officials and the legal aspect of marriage. Now, in New Paltz and elsewhere, the religious side of wedlock is embroiled as well.

In Washington State, a lesbian Methodist minister said she was relieved by her acquittal in a church trial over her sexual orientation — but so was the pastor who prosecuted her, and even the bishop who filed the complaint.

A jury of 13 pastors said it decided in favor of the Rev. Karen Dammann "after many hours of painful and prayerful deliberations, and listening for and to the word of God."

Dammann, 47, married her partner of nine years earlier this month in Portland, Ore., where officials have been allowing gay marriages. "It's been heart-stopping at times, too exciting at times," she said after the verdict.

Meredith Savage, Dammann's partner, said she called their 5-year-old son and shouted, "Mama won!"

While the verdict could alienate some conservatives within the Methodist church, Dammann's prosecution was painful for many in the Seattle area.

The United Methodist clergy of the Pacific Northwest Conference had voted to retain Dammann after she disclosed that she was in a homosexual relationship, but the denomination's Judicial Council reversed that decision last fall.

Church law prohibits the ordination of self-avowed, practicing homosexuals and the church's Book of Discipline declares homosexuality to be "incompatible to Christian teachings."

The Rev. James C. Finkbeiner, who prosecuted the case, said he believed the jury overstepped the bounds of church law. "And I don't feel bad about that. Our process is fair."

Then, with permission from Bishop Elias Galvan, Finkbeiner spoke for himself, adding, "I'm glad I lost, on a personal basis."

If nine of the 13 clergy members on the jury had voted to convict her, Dammann could have lost her ministry. The church cannot appeal the verdict.

Dammann has been on leave as pastor of First United Methodist Church in Ellensburg, 95 miles east of Seattle. The ruling means she is in good standing with the church and available for new assignments.

About 100 people attended a prayer service immediately after the verdict was announced. The Rev. Rody Rowe, pastor of Queen Anne United Methodist Church in Seattle, told the gathering they could pray silently or voice their thoughts.

After a long silence, one woman said, "I pray for our church, for those who will rejoice and for those who will gnash their teeth and wail."

The United Methodist Church, the nation's third-largest with 8.5 million U.S. members, has struggled publicly with the issue of homosexuality since 1972. In that year, the General Conference declared homosexuals "persons of sacred worth" but found homosexuality "incompatible with Christian teaching."

Similar rifts have developed in other Christian denominations — most notably in the Episcopal Church, which confirmed an openly gay bishop last year. Since then, several conservative parishes have threatened to break ties with the denomination.

Galvan acknowledged the verdict will upset some people.

"The church is not of one mind," Galvan said. "I expect this issue to continue to be raised until society comes to terms with it."