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California Methodists Move To Allow Gay Weddings In Opposition To Church Doctrine

SAN FRANCISCO (CBS SF) - Methodist congregations across California and much of the west say they will no longer bar same-sex weddings on church grounds, according to a newly-discovered church declaration.

A document being called the "Declaration of Inclusion" has begun circulating among the governing bodies of several Bay Area churches. As of February 18th, 30 churches had declared their intent to allow the unions; about half of those in the Bay Area.

"I think we're up to 35 now, and we have our first one in Nevada," said Vicki Gaugler, who represents a coalition of Sacramento area churches which authored the document late last year. "I hope I'll be busy updating the list of churches after this news breaks."

The group has established a website, where they it's a move that can no longer be delayed.

"We must unshackle ourselves from rules reflecting the cultures where same sex marriages are forbidden. We can no longer, in good conscience, deny use of our property to our members and friends," reads an online post from the group.

The subject of gay marriage has been particularly divisive for the Methodist church. Last December church leadership defrocked a Pennsylvania pastor over his decision to perform his son's same-sex marriage. As the Declaration of Inclusion notes, such unions are at odds with the Book of Discipline - the set of governing regulations for the faith.

"Current United Methodist Church (UMC) policy, as outlined in the Book of Discipline, states, "We do not condone the practice of homosexuality and consider this practice incompatible with Christian teaching...Ceremonies that celebrate homosexual unions shall not be conducted by our ministers and shall not be conducted in our churches," reads the declaration.

That sentiment is at odds with beliefs of many who lead Bay Area congregations. Most of local the groups adopting the declaration did so unanimously. Many of those churches are part of the Reconciling Ministries Network, a group that tries to operate within Methodist teachings while remaining inclusive of people in the LGBT community.

"What this means is that we have undertaken a continuing obligation of making issues sensitive to LGBTQ individuals a matter of regular spiritual discourse across our membership...when people are invited into membership at Napa First, they are invited into that ongoing conversation," reads the February newsletter from the First United Methodist Church in Napa, which adopted the declaration by a 12-0 vote.

Though compelling, the support from laymen doesn't necessarily translate into open same-sex unions performed in those churches by members of the Methodist clergy. The Book of Discipline states that "The decision to perform the ceremony shall be the right and responsibility of the pastor." So the onus to perform a ceremony on church grounds still remains with the officiating member of the clergy.

"This does not compel the pastor to perform the ceremony…that's a personal decision," said Gaugler. "However, I do believe that most of the pastors at these churches that have signed on are on board."

Several pastors across the country have pledged to begin performing same-sex marriage in the wake of the Pennsylvania controversy, a move endorsed by thousands of online petitioners. Western Bishops and other senior church officials also made headlines in 2012 when they signaled their opposition to the church's current stand on gay marriage.

"We pledge to you that we will continue to work for that day when we, The United Methodist Church, can truly live up to our logo of open hearts, open minds, open doors," Bishop Minerva Carcaño, president of the Western Jurisdiction College of Bishops, said at the time. It was a stance which caused some to leave their church and incited criticism from other members of the faith.

Gaugler, who regularly does counseling  for LGBT-related families through the group PFLAG (Parents, Friends and Family of Lesbians and Gays), says that stigma is what must change.

"The thing that has really struck me is that the families that come in for support are so concerned about how their church is going to react," said Gaugler.  "That's why I think this declaration is so important."

The Declaration of Inclusion is the latest step in the process of reconciling the teachings of the church with the goal of inclusiveness. It remains to be seen whether this will be a step toward common ground or further the rift between those who wish to maintain a ban on same-sex unions and those who believe they are a sacred right.

Gaugler said organizers plan to provide more details on the support they have received for the declaration at a March 10th event in Elk Grove.

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