Clergy say, "I won't"

Since gays and lesbians can't say "I do," some churches are getting out of the marriage business

Published July 10, 2009 10:14AM (EDT)

Art Cribbs leans forward in his pressed blue shirt and pink tie, wide-eyed and wistful, exclaiming his love of wedding ceremonies while sitting in his office one morning.

"It's just glorious," he said. "Every time I do a wedding, I go back to my wife and reconnect. It's like reliving our own wedding vows."

But Cribbs, a 59-year-old African-American minister with the United Church of Christ in San Marino, Calif., isn't attending many weddings lately.

As part of a nationwide movement, Cribbs is refusing to oversee the union of couples until the right to marry is granted to all, and laws like Proposition 8 in California, which deny the right of same-sex couples to marry, are repealed.

Headed by John Tamilio and Tricia Gilbert of Pilgrim Congregational United Church of Christ in Cleveland, the Refuse-to-Sign campaign seeks to make the division between church and state clearer, as it concerns the issue of marriage.

Supporters of the campaign argue that faith leaders have, by default, become agents of the state, signing off on marriage licenses -- whether or not they agree with the state's policy on marriage. By asking clergy to refuse to sign marriage certificates, they hope to make a distinction between the obligation of the state to afford equal rights to all and marriage as a religious sacrament.

In short, the Refuse-to-Sign campaign says, while churches have the right to choose whether to bless same-sex couples, states should not have such a choice, and have a duty to extend marriage certificates to all who seek them.

Clergy aren't the only ones participating in the campaign. Couples can also join the movement by voluntarily going to a local judge or court clerk for the signing of the marriage license, rather than to a church leader; they look to their congregation strictly to provide a religious ceremony.

Tamilio says the movement is just now gaining ground, with a couple of dozen interfaith leaders already signed up. But he believes that there are thousands out there who are interested in such a campaign, although the specific way clergy participate does vary.

Cribbs, for example, isn't just refusing to sign marriage certificates. He's refusing to perform at weddings at all.

As an African-American who grew up in the impoverished Watts area of Los Angeles, famous for the large-scale 1965 race riots, a backlash to the lack of social services in the area and discriminatory behavior by police, Cribbs says he can't see doing anything else. The discrimination faced by African-Americans in the '60s is not unlike the challenges homosexuals face today.

"I cannot with good conscience perform weddings for heterosexuals knowing people who are gay and lesbian are being denied that opportunity," he said.

Molly Holland Avery, founder of the Organization for Cultural Competency, a group dedicated to bringing people of diverse backgrounds together, voluntarily forwent a civil ceremony as part of the campaign, opting solely for a religious one. She says she understands the discrimination same-sex couples are facing today.

"We're a mixed-race couple," 67-year-old Avery said, referring to her African-American husband. "Forty years ago, there were several states where we could not be married."

All Saints Church, an Episcopal church in Pasadena, Calif., is one of a few congregations that has joined the campaign so far, declaring, "We are no longer in the civil marriage business."

"We are not going to allow the state to make us agents of discrimination," Susan Russell said, the congregation's senior associate. (Russell issued this statement from the Episcopal Church's general convention being held in Anaheim, Calif., this week and next. The convention is set to consider resolutions that would allow same-sex blessings in the church, as well as the appointment of gay bishops, resolutions that many Anglicans disagree with and that have resulted in friction among members.)

The inability of a church's leadership to unanimously agree on the issue of homosexuality or same-sex marriage has led to troubles for some who have joined the Refuse-to-Sign movement.

Anne Cohen, a minister at First Congregational Church in Glendale, Calif., had at one point spoken out about her refusal to sign and her decision to withhold her services from heterosexual couples. Cohen, however, now says she has promised her congregation that she will no longer talk about her "personal decision."

Still, John Witte Jr. at the Center for the Study of Law and Religion at Emory University says, a movement that asks clergy to stop signing is likely to gain ground. Witte says prior to the American Revolution, a strict separation of church and state, specifically as it concerns marriage, existed. And he suspects we're heading full circle.

"I think it's probably a start to a new trend," he said. "Clergy are going to get out of this marriage business."

Canada and Western Europe already operate under a two-step process, not unlike the one advocated by supporters of Refuse-to-Sign. People in these countries are used to looking to churches to experience marriage as a sacrament, and to the state for the signing of the certificate. And Witte says certain denominations of Baptists, Quakers and Catholics chose to remove themselves from the business of marriage long ago.

In fact, Witte says a parallel can be drawn between what is happening today with regard to marriage, and what has happened in the past with regard to adoption. Although the Catholic Church, like other religious organizations, has traditionally acted as an adoption agency, when faced with pressure in states like Massachusetts to allow same-sex couples to adopt, the church has opted to quit the business altogether, rather than continue to deal with the controversy stirred by the state's mandate.

Of course, unlike in adoption, which is an all or nothing proposition, churches could decide to quit the business of marriage, while still overseeing unions; they would simply extricate themselves from the civil side of marriage, that is, the signing of the certificates.

It's an idea that organizers think both conservatives and liberals can get behind.

The Refuse-to-Sign movement, despite being made up largely of liberal organizations, is actively making an appeal to conservatives: We want your church to be able to decide for itself on the issue of same-sex marriage, even if, in the end, it chooses not to bless same-sex couples; we just don't think the state has that choice.

Although conservatives may not like the direction the country is heading, they could be satisfied with the knowledge that they will continue to have the freedom to deny same-sex couples the right to marry, without getting hassled by the state or other religious organizations.

And although the Obama administration has been receiving piss-poor grades from the LGBT community of late, there are enough who are afraid of what might be around the corner -- on both sides of the debate -- that a movement to seek more autonomy, and separate church and state on the issue of marriage, could very well be appealing. For supporters of gay marriage, it means avoiding the possibility that friends who are homosexual will never achieve marriage status, and for those on the other side of the debate, it means the religious communities they belong to won't be forced to comply with a state mandate with which they disagree.

By Lilly Fowler

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Gay Marriage Religion