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Homosexuality and Christian denominations

The Presbyterian Church (USA) & same-sex
, from 1991 to GA preparations in 2001

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bullet "...religion is a great source of pain among families dealing with sexual orientation and gender identity issues." Kirsten Kingdon, spokesperson for Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays (PFLAG) at a dinner meeting of the PC USA 2000 General Assembly.

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Many authors divide Protestantism into three groups: conservative, mainline and liberal. A near consensuses of opposition exists among conservative on matters such as abortion, physician assisted suicide, evolution, homosexuality, pre-marital sex, and a few dozen other hot topics. A near but opposite consensus exists among the liberal denominations. However, for a mainline denomination like the Presbyterian Church (USA) a consensus is impossible to attain. The denomination is divided at the family, congregation and presbytery levels between members with conservative and liberal ideation. Divisions on matters of human sexuality seem to be particularly difficult. Gulfs have opened between young and old members, between urban and rural areas, and between northern and southern sections of the country. Presbyterians read the same Bible but come to opposite conclusions about what it says.

The concept of homosexual marriage and civil unions is a relatively new development. Most gay and lesbian groups had been giving priority to reducing anti-gay violence, and attaining security in employment and accommodation. Then, during the 1990s a group in Hawaii mounted a campaign to widen the definition of marriage to include same-sex couples. This started a process in which some states began to recognize loving, committed same-sex couples either by re-defining marriage to include same-sex couples, or creating a parallel system of civil unions. The latter typically grant the same rights as married couples automatically receive, except for what is perhaps the most important right: to call their relationship a marriage.

Religiously liberal congregations and synagogues have conducted union services or marriages for same-sex couples. Some Presbyterian same-sex couples have asked to have similar recognition of their relationship in their church. This has kicked off a vigorous debate within the denomination.

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The path towards recognition of same-sex unions and SSM:

bullet 1991 Report: The report: "Keeping Body and Soul Together: Sexuality, Spirituality and Social Justice" discussed same-sex civil unions. it recommended that:

"the moral for Christians ought not be marriage, but rather justice-love...Where there is justice- love, sexual expression has ethical integrity. That moral principle applies to single, as well as to married, persons, to gay, lesbian and bisexual persons, as well as to heterosexual persons."

A minority found that Scripture condemned homosexuality as immoral. One source reports that, by a lopsided vote of 501 to 7, the General Assembly voted to reject the majority report and accept the minority report. They declared that God's intention is that sexual activity be confined to one woman and one man within a marriage; offered compassion and forgiveness for gays and lesbians who cannot follow that path; and confirmed that no openly homosexual persons can be ordained. However, General Assembly documents indicate that no decision was made on either report; neither the majority nor the minority position was accepted.

bullet 1991 General Assembly: The General Assembly did issue an "authoritative guidance" that "the session should not allow the use of the church facilities, and a minister of Word and Sacrament should not officiate at a ceremony determined to be the same as a marriage ceremony."

bullet 1994 General Assembly: The General Assembly passed a constitutional amendment that would prevent clergy from blessing same-sex unions. This was later was rejected by the presbyteries in 1995.

bullet 1998-NOV: NY: Same-sex union ceremonies are openly performed at South Presbyterian church in Dobbs Ferry, NY. The nearby Bethlehem Presbyterian Church in New Windsor NY objected to this practice and filed a complaint with the Presbytery of the Hudson River in 1998-NOV.

In 1999-JAN, following a study of the complaint, the< Presbytery voted 107 to 35 to allow ministers to perform same-sex union rituals. 1 They also stated that this action "reflects our understanding at this time that these ceremonies do not constitute marriage as defined by 'The Book of Order.'" 2 Steve Geckeler of the Presbyterian Church in White Places, NY, said: "I think that God's tears are a lot less every time we affirm monogamy over promiscuity."

This action will probably trigger some action by the Church on union ceremonies. This could take the form of a complaint against the presbytery or session or minister. It could trigger an amendment to the The Book of Order which would totally prohibit such rituals. The 1994 General Assembly passed such an amendment, but it was rejected by the presbyteries in 1995. More details

bullet 1999: GA PJC: PCUSA NEWS reported that:
"In a case that is now under appeal to the General Assembly's Permanent Judicial Commission (PJC; the church's highest court), lower courts have ruled that amending the church's constitution to flatly prohibit same-sex unions is a better way of resolving the issue than depending on court cases. At least three presbyteries (district governing bodies) have submitted overtures to that effect." 3
Any resolutions intended to change the denomination's constitution would presumably have to wait until the 2001 General Assembly because of the two year moratorium.

bullet 2000-MAY-25: NY, NJ: The PJC decided that Presbyterian ministers may perform same-sex union services as long as they reflect "our understanding at this time that these ceremonies do not constitute marriage as defined in the Book of Order." They also decided that a church session may accept a gay person as a candidate for ministry, even though a sexually active gay person cannot be ordained. Due to the "high number of cases," the court had to defer a decision on the Vermont case.
bullet 1999-NOV: NY, NJ: ON NOV-22, the  Permanent Judicial Commission (PJC) of the Synod of the Northeast dismissed complaints against two presbyteries. One was related to union ceremonies:


A minister of the South Presbyterian Church of Dobbs Ferry, NY, (part of the Presbytery of Hudson River) may conduct "holy union" ceremonies for gay or lesbian couples if they first make clear that the ritual is not the same as a marriage. They ruled 7 to 3 that:

"Because the plain language of the motion adopted by Respondent Presbytery states that it is not authorizing marriage ceremonies between persons of the same sex, we find (the) arguments offered by the complainants unpersuasive."

Jeff Halvorsen whose union was blessed in Dobbs Ferry, said:

"I'm very pleased, very happy that they've made this ruling, which means that there is still a possibility of having gay unions in the Presbyterian Church."

George Cisneros, his spouse, commented:
"Of course I'm happy with the decision and regard it as a victory. Anything that's not derogatory is a victory."

Julius Poppinga, counsel for the complainants, said that the decision will "certainly" be appealed.


2000-JAN-11: NY, VT, NJ: According to PCUSA NEWS, three judicial cases from the Synod of the Northeast have been appealed to the General Assembly Permanent Judicial Commission (PJC). In the Hudson River Presbytery's case, the synod PJC ruled that same-sex union ceremonies are not marriages and are thus permitted in churches.

"In his arguments...Gordon Fish, who represented the complainants, argued that the synod PJC's ruling that same-sex unions do not constitute marriage is a 'case of semantic hair-splitting' and a 'sham.' He urged the court to overturn it. ... Blessing what the church historically has considered sinful, Fish said, is unconstitutional. He claimed that that view is supported by both the scriptures and the confessions. 4 [The gay couple] didn't talk about being holy-unioned, but about being married...They didn't order a holy union cake, but a wedding cake."

bullet 2000-MAY-20:  NY, VT, NJ: Tampa Bay, Charlotte and San Joaquin have filed overtures to this year's General Assembly seeking to amend the constitution to prohibit same-sex unions. 5

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This toplic continues in a second essay

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Related Presbyterian essays on this web site:

bullet Menu: Homosexuality and the Presbyterian Church
bullet Lesbian/gay ordination in the Presbyterian Church
bullet Resolution by Presbytery of the Twin Cities Area (Minneapolis/St. Paul) titled "Resolution of Witness to the Gospel in Response to Amendment B."
bullet The Covenant Network of Presbyterians' "A Call to Covenant Community"
bullet Statement of aplology by Presbytery of the Twin Cities Area  

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Internet and Media References

  1. News summary, Religion Today 1999-FEB-1
  2. J.L. Van Marter, "Hudson river Presbytery Affirms 'Freedom' to Conduct Same-Sex Union Ceremonies," PCUSA News, 1999-FEB-3, #99054
  3. PCUSA News release, 2000-APR-25 #00166
  4. "PJC Says Gay Man May Be Ordination Candidate, Ministers May Bless
    Same-Sex Unions,
    " PCUSA NEWS, 2000-MAY-24 #00209
  5. "PC(USA)'s highest court hears appeals on three gay rights-related cases," PCUSA NEWS, 2000-MAY-20 #00203
  6. "Assembly committee recommends prohibition of same-sex unions," OCUSA NEWS, 2000-JUN-27 
  7. "Assembly sends same sex union ban amendment to presbyteries," PCAUSA NEWS, 2000-JUN-30.
  8. "Vote on same-sex union amendment will be close, early returns indicate," PCAUSA NEWS, 2001-JAN-24.
  9. "Proposed amendment vote tallies," at: http://www.horeb.pcusa.org/oga/
  10. John Sniffen, "Controversial report on families sent back for more work," The Presbyterian Outlook, at: http://www.pres-outlook.com/

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Copyright © 1996 to 2011 by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Last update: 2011-OCT-13
Author: B.A. Robinson
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