Last Sunday, April 17, 2011, Douglass Boulevard Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) in Louisville, Kentucky, assembled as a congregation for a meeting. I am an Elder of Douglass Boulevard and a past chairperson of the congregation. Our congregation had a discussion, and afterwards, by a unanimous voice vote of all members present, we adopted a policy that has garnered our quiet congregation national media attention. The policy is as follows. Our pastors and elders will perform, as they always have, church weddings for those who wish to be married in the church. Our denomination vests in them the religious authority to solemnize marriage vows before God and the community of the faithful, and they will continue to exercise that authority. However, our pastors and elders will no longer use the additional legal authority the state vests in them of executing marriage licenses on the state’s behalf as the state’s agent. Couples who so choose, and are comfortable with our church’s stance, may be married by our ministers, but those couples would, if heterosexual and otherwise authorized by current law, have to find someone else, such as a judge or county clerk, to sign their marriage licenses.
Our church took this step as a natural outgrowth of its commitment, also made by unanimous congregational vote in 2008, to become an “Open and Affirming” community of faith. That commitment specifically means that our congregation welcomes all persons, including gays, lesbians, bisexuals, and transgendered persons, out of our belief that God loves and fully embraces the complexity and richness of our sexual and gender identities. We neither demand nor require that GLBT persons hide their sexual orientation or gender identity in order to be full members of our community, including positions of leadership and ordained ministry. We may or may not always live up to the implied ideals of this commitment, but by taking the explicit public stance, we have made ourselves accountable to our brothers and sisters for our shortcomings.
As long as our church and its ministers and members are dealing exclusively with purely religious and community matters, we can feel responsible for how we live out our Open and Affirming commitment. But performing legal marriages implicates our ministers in a legal régime over which our church does not, and should not, exercise direct influence, that nevertheless runs directly counter to our church’s Open and Affirming stance. For the laws of the state of Kentucky, and the federal Defense of Marriage Act of 1996, are specifically motivated by, and give state sanction to, the belief that GLBT persons are less than equal citizens. Kentucky goes even further than most states in that it amended its constitution in 2004 to ban same-sex marriage specifically. Denying GLBT persons in committed relationships the legal right to marry is more than just the denial of an honorific title, although given the historic social significance of the honorific title, that is bad enough. Under the law, married persons enjoy a host of rights and benefits that unmarried persons do not. Married persons pay less in taxes, can be beneficiaries of their spouses’ estates, have visitation rights in hospitals, and the list goes on and on.
Of course, straight unmarried persons also lack access to these same rights and benefits. The difference, though, is that they may, if they find an agreeable partner, avail themselves of these benefits at law at any time by marrying. The state will not ask any questions of them beyond their ages, whether they are members of the same family, and whether they are already married to someone else. The state will not inquire after whether they just met or have known one another for years; whether they are really in love; whether one partner is abusive towards the other; or anything else that has to do with the actual fitness of their relationship.
Many straight people marry unwisely, and many probably have no business being married to anybody. All the same, the state affords them an opportunity to forge an honest, meaningful long-term relationship with another person with whom they can share intimacy at all levels, including sexual intimacy, and the state rewards that choice with a host of tangible material and social benefits. GLBT persons can under current law only exercise this option by marrying persons with whom they are grossly incompatible due to the fact that they are unable to share genuine intimacy. It creates a powerful incentive to marry people with whom they must deal dishonestly and to whom they must deny the deepest parts of themselves. The state, in short, encourages them to deny, to others and themselves, their deepest longings and most powerful energies– just those parts of ourselves that the God we worship wishes to bless, embrace, and make whole.
Hence the conflict.
Our church and its ministers have chosen to respond to this conflict by opting out of the legal marriage régime. Legal and religious marriage are distinct, and rightly so. Religious marriage is a matter of which relationships God and the community of the faithful recognize, bless, and sanctify. Legal marriage is an institution the state maintains for its own purposes. Nothing beyond custom and traditional deference to political authorities requires that ministers participate in legal marriage. So our church and its ministers are choosing not to participate, on the basis that remaining faithful to where God has called us outweighs deference to custom. We are not sanctioning active disobedience to the law. If that were the case, we would sign marriage licenses for same-sex couples, and we are not doing that. Our stance is thus not quite one of civil disobedience. It is, rather, an attempt to live out our religious commitments honestly and with integrity. We cannot honestly preach God’s love and embrace of GLBT persons and then turn around and act as agents of unjust laws that institutionalize their status as second-class citizens.
Our policy has received far more media attention than any of us might have expected. As one might expect, the media coverage has missed some of the finer points of our stance. For instance, the coverage generally casts our vote as an act of “protest.” We do obviously disagree with the law as it currently stands, but our vote was motivated less by a desire to protest it than by the need to live out our commitments honestly. We are not temperamentally an attention-seeking congregation. Yet in another sense it is clearly an act of protest. In a culture like ours whose leaders and influencers are hardly models of intellectual honesty and integrity, living honestly and with integrity is itself an act of protest. Certainly it has been perceived as such, especially by those who are inclined to find fault with our church’s Open and Affirming stance generally.
Nor are we ceasing to perform marriages, as if our congregation somehow doesn’t take marriage seriously or think it important. Quite the opposite is the case. We are simply refusing to sign marriage licenses. Anyone who wants to get married in our church, and is also legally allowed to marry, may still do so with our church’s full blessing, provided that they find someone other than our ministers to execute the license fully. In many other countries, this is in fact the norm already. It just runs against the grain here in the United States.
I will not attempt here to provide a full theological and moral argument for our church’s Open and Affirming commitment. It is this commitment, rather than our specific policy regarding the performance of marriages, that animates the most criticism. I think I can provide such an argument, but it goes beyond my scope here. I hope to write more on this subject at a later date. All I seek to convey here is why, given the commitments our congregation has made, the step we took is a step towards honesty, consistency, and integrity.
All of us who are on The Way, as the Book of Acts calls it, are constantly stumbling along in faith. In this life we see “through a glass darkly” (1 Cor 13:12). All we can do is move forward through the shadows on the strength of what has already been given to us. I write these words the day before Easter Sunday, a day when we are reminded that what we have given is a mysterious and powerful love that overcomes all of the world’s hatred and ultimately even triumphs over death. Our church believes in the power of that love to meet us where we are, just as we are, and bless, redeem and transform us. We at Douglass Boulevard believe that our recent policy decision is a step further along that Way. May we all, with God’s blessing, step carefully and faithfully along that Way together.