Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Mass. clergy lend voices to New York same-sex marriage debate - The Boston Globe

Mass. clergy lend voices to New York same-sex marriage debate - The Boston Globe

By Michael Paulson
Globe Staff / April 22, 2009

Several prominent religious leaders from Massachusetts are lending their support to the campaign for the legalization of same-sex marriage in New York state, arguing in various venues yesterday that gay marriage has not affected religious freedom in the Bay State.

The gay rights group, the Empire State Pride Agenda, said it sought out clergy in Masachusetts in an effort to rebut critics of same-sex marriage.

"There is a campaign on the side of the religious right to convince people that marriage equality for same-sex couples will threaten religious freedom, but we don't think that is the case, and we don't want any myths to go unanswered," said Alan Van Capelle, executive director of the organization. "Nobody has more experience in dealing with the issue of marriage equality than Massachusetts, and so the best people to respond are those who live in Massachusetts and who lead religious institutions."

Empire State Pride yesterday released a YouTube video featuring three Massachusetts clergy: Bishop M. Thomas Shaw of the Episcopal Diocese of Massachusetts; the Rev. Nancy S. Taylor of Old South Church, a United Church of Christ congregation in Boston; and the Rev. Michael Wayne Walker of Messiah Baptist Church, an American Baptist congregation in Brockton. Taylor and Walker officiate at same-sex marriages; Shaw does not, because his denomination opposes it, although he personally supports them.

"We've never had any litigation around same-sex marriages, we've never had any protests that I know of, and we've never had any interference, as far as the government is concerned, in our religious tradition," Shaw said.

Taylor recited a partial list of denominations in Massachusetts that do not allow their clergy to officiate at same-sex marriages, including the largest, the Catholic Church, and the United Methodist Church, the Evangelical Lutheran Church, and the Episcopal Church. Other groups that do not perform same-sex marriages in Massachusetts include Orthodox Christian churches, Orthodox Judaism, Islam, and the Mormons.

"The fact is that the vast majority of churches and ministers in Massachusetts cannot and do not officiate at same-gender marriage because they're not permitted to by their traditions," Taylor said. "It has nothing to do with the state. It's their own religious tradition."

The Empire State Pride Agenda also released a series of interviews with Massachusetts clergy from liberal denominations who assert that their religious freedom had not been affected by the legalization of same-sex marriage. Among those cited are the Rev. John Stendahl, pastor of the Lutheran Church of the Newtons and the Rev. Margaret Bullitt-Jonas, an Episcopal priest in Amherst, both of whom are forbidden by their denominations from officiating at same-sex marriages, as well as Rabbi Elias Lieberman of a Reform synagogue in Falmouth, and the Rev. William G. Sinkford, president of the Unitarian Universalist Association, who do officiate at same-sex marriages.

Van Capelle said the gay-rights group's staff will download the six-minute video of Massachusetts clergy onto their cellphones and bring it with them to show New York legislators, who are expected to tackle the same-sex marriage issue this year. The governor of New York, David A. Paterson, introduced legislation last week to legalize same-sex marriage in the state.

"It is a constant concern from elected officials that religious institutions in their district are somehow going to be forced to compromise their faith traditions," van Capelle said. "It's important to hear from people in a state that has marriage equality that that is not the case. Massachusetts has gone from being a trailblazer to now being a teacher and a case study for the rest of the nation."

Two leading opponents of same-sex marriage in Massachusetts said yesterday they believe that conflicts between religions and the state are coming. Kris Mineau, president of the Massachusetts Family Institute, cited as an example the state's insistence that Catholic Charities be willing to place adoptive children with same-sex couples in order to continue receiving state funding, a requirement that led Catholic Charities to get out of the adoption business.

"Same-sex marriage is on a collision course with religious liberties; it's inevitable," said Mineau, who also predicted that some churches could lose their nonprofit status if they do not agree with public policy on gay rights.

Edward F. Saunders Jr., executive director of the Massachusetts Catholic Conference, cited the debate over "conscience clauses" for medical professionals who don't want to provide abortion services as another example of the tension between religious freedom and public policy that he expects to be heightened by the legalization of same-sex marriage.

"I don't think there's been any immediate direct effect right at the moment, but the fear is there that there will be a confrontation," Saunders said.

Michael Paulson can be reached at

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