Religion's Third Rail

Some call homosexuality the "third rail" of religion in America. And it has, arguably, become the most divisive issue in American religion - an issue so explosive few want to touch it. CBS News Correspondent Bernard Goldberg has the story for Sunday Morning.

Michael Hopkins, an Episcopalian priest in Glen Dale, Maryland, does not see himself as a crusader or a revolutionary in what many say is the most divisive religious debate in America since slavery. He just sees himself as a priest who is homosexual.

The debate that is threatening to split mainstream churches is between traditionalists and reformers, between conservatives and liberals. Should a church fully accept homosexuals as normal human beings? Or should it continue to treat them as sinners, as it has for thousands of years?

Some say the more conservative, more traditional view in many churches is that homosexuality is a sin. But Reverend Hopkins says: "The more enlightened view, I suppose, is simply that gay and lesbian people are like all other people, that their orientation is a matter of their nature and so, of creation. And that they are called to live out their Christian faith in the same way that other people are."

St. George's is not a "gay" church. But its members have not only accepted the Reverend Hopkins, they have also accepted his partner, John Bradley.

"One of our favorite sayings here at St. George is 'we're all a mess here.' None of us is perfect," says Bradley. "This church has been wonderfully welcoming of me. I suspect that my role as the spouse of the priest is probably not much different as it would be a heterosexual spouse of a clergy person."

A gay minister and his partner may not be controversial at St. George's, but it was very controversial last summer in England when Hopkins' own church, the Anglicans, passed a non-binding resolution saying that homosexuality was incompatible with the Bible.

In Sacramento, California a few months ago, 100 Methodist ministers blessed a same sex marriage. Outside, you could see and hear the sparks from the third rail.

Cal Thomas, a conservative political columnist and the former spokesman of the Moral Majority, is very much on the other side of this issue. He believes the Bible says that "practicing homosexuals will not enter the kingdom of heavenÂ…. God has spoken, and so he did not send the Ten Commandments down from Mount Sinai offering the ancient Israelites the line item veto."

This is one of those debates where both sides say it's a moral issue and, therefore, there's no room for compromise. And both sides say they have a powerful ally on their side: God.

"There's no middle ground here. That's why this is such a divisive issue," says Reverend Eileen Lindner.

The Reverend Eileen Lindner is a historian with the National Council of Churches. She thinks there are indications that this issue could cause a split in he church. And when it comes to homosexuality in the church, she says, "some people have already voted with their feet."

The church in America, she points out, is influenced by what goes on outside the church. As gays have come out proclaiming their pride and as the debate over gay rights has been argued throughout the culture, it was inevitable that it would spread to the last bastion of traditional morality: the church itself.

The Reverend Lindner says: "I think for some there really is conviction that this is some kind of last best chance to redeem the culture. On the other hand, I believe that there are those who, not without reason, believe the civil liberties of gay and lesbian people will never be honored while the church stands four square against them."

Catholics are split on the issue, too. A few days ago, at the St. Patrick's Day Parade in New York, gay Catholics protested because they were not allowed to march with everyone else.

Father George Harvey counsels gay Catholics to live a celibate life. The Catholic Church's position is that while being homosexual in and of itself is not a sin, expressing it in a sexual way is "an objective disorder."

"The scriptures clearly teach that the meaning of human sexuality is the permanent commitment, a man and a woman, with the hope of having children," argues Father Harvey. Anything else, he says, "is not what human sexuality ought to be."

Ask Father Harvey if he foresees the day when a pope might declare that homosexuality is not a sin, and he will tell you: "I don't think it will ever happen because we're dealing with a teaching that is so central to the meaning of human sexuality, to the meaning of marriage. We'd have to change the very meaning of marriage itself."

In Judaism, as in Christianity, there is a split. Reform Jews, the most liberal wing of the religion, say while the Jewish scriptures do indeed say homosexuality is an abomination, that is an outdated, even ignorant, view. Rabbi Jerome Davidson of the Temple Beth El in Great Neck, New Jersey, says religion, the way the Bible is interpreted, must keep up with science and the times.

Rabbi Davidson explains: "In the Bible, those who put those words on the manuscript had no understanding of homosexual orientation, of someone who was born with that. And even if there is an ancient law that says that's sinful or that's wrong, that's a law that goes back several thousand years. We're talking about what medicine and science are teaching us in our own time. I think some people use religion to hide their bigotry. I have to say it because I believe it."

In fact, Rabbi Davidson has performed a same sex marriage for another rabbi, Karen Bender. Even in this liberal congregation, some thought that was too much.

Rabbi Bender worked at Temple Beth-El before the ceremony, and she still does. This is something orthodox Jews would never tolerate since they consider homoexuality a violation of scripture.

Rabbi Bender says: "People engage in what I call selective fundamentalism. The very same people who say 'but it's in the Bible, a man should not lie with a man,' eat pork."

Rabbi Davidson believes it's right to accept homosexuality and he predicts that eventually conservatives "and their children, I hope, will understand that it's important to embrace everybody."

Cal Thomas disagrees: "I don't need various scientists to tell me what God says. I don't even need liberal clergy to tell me. God wrote it so even a simple guy like me could understand it."

The battle lines have been drawn and the arguments are made. On moral issues, there's no room for compromise.

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