Churches Consider Changing By-Laws to Protect Against Same-Sex Marriage Lawsuits

In the wake of the Supreme Court’s decisions regarding the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) and California’s Prop 8, some attorneys are encouraging churches to change their by-laws as a means of protection against lawsuits from same-sex couples.

While some in the wedding industry have experienced legal difficulties due to their refusal to serve gay couples, thus far there have been no suits against churches.

Following the High Court’s ruling in June, President Obama said in a statement:

On an issue as sensitive as this, knowing that Americans hold a wide range of views based on deeply held beliefs, maintaining our nation’s commitment to religious freedom is also vital. How religious institutions define and consecrate marriage has always been up to those institutions. Nothing about this decision – which applies only to civil marriages – changes that.

Nevertheless, more than several conservative and Christian journalists still seemed skeptical that the president’s promise would be kept.

The Associated Press reported Saturday that some churches fear that sooner or later one of them will be sued for declining to perform a same-sex marriage.

Gregory S. Erwin, an attorney for the Louisiana Baptist Convention, an association of Southern Baptist churches, is encouraging churches to change their by-laws for protection.

“I thought marriage was always between one man and one woman, but the Supreme Court in a 5-4 decision said no,” Erwin said. “I think it’s better to be prepared because the law is changing. America is changing.”

In its decision in June, the Supreme Court struck down a provision of DOMA that defined marriage as between a man and a woman for the purposes of federal law.

According to AP, Kevin Snider, an attorney with the Pacific Justice Institute, a nonprofit legal defense group that specializes in conservative Christian issues, released a “model marriage policy” several years ago during California’s statewide gay marriage debate. Snider said that some Christian leaders had been threatened with lawsuits for refusing to perform same-sex marriages.

Similarly, Dean Inserra, head pastor of the City Church Tallahassee, is also looking into how best to protect his church. Inserra said he has already declined to perform the wedding ceremonies of gay friends.

“We have some gay couples that attend our church. What happens when they ask us to do their wedding?” Inserra asked. “What happens when we say no? Is it going to be treated like a civil rights thing?”

But Justin Lee, executive director of the Gay Christian Network, a nonprofit that offers support for gay Christians, said he disagreed with the churches that fear “there is this huge movement with the goal of forcing them to perform ceremonies that violate their freedom of religion.”

Lee said, “If anyone tried to force a church to perform a ceremony against their will, I would be the first person to stand up in that church’s defense.”

The United Church of Christ performs gay marriages. The Episcopal Church recently approved a blessing for same-sex couples, but it is up to the bishop of each local diocese to decide whether to permit the marriage ceremony in parish churches.

Soon after the Supreme Court’s marriage rulings, Monsignor Charles Pope of the Archdiocese of Washington, wondered whether the Roman Catholic Church needed to “set aside the word ‘Marriage’ and use ‘Holy Matrimony’ exclusively.”

Pope wrote:

It is a simple fact that word “marriage” as we have traditionally known it is being redefined in our times. To many in the secular world the word no longer means what it once did and when the Church uses the word marriage we clearly do not mean what the increasing number of states mean.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church defines “Marriage” (i.e. Holy Matrimony) in the following way:

The matrimonial covenant, by which a man and a woman establish between themselves a partnership of the whole of life, is by its nature ordered toward the good of the spouses and the procreation and education of offspring; this covenant between baptized persons has been raised by Christ the Lord to the dignity of a sacrament (CCC # 1601)

The latest actions by numerous states and the hat-tip that the Supremes gave Same sex unions mean that increasingly, the secular world’s definition of marriage no longer even remotely resembles what the Catechism describes.

Pope went on to propose that the Church refer exclusively to marriage as “Holy Matrimony.”

“The word ‘matrimony’ also emphasizes two aspects of marriage: procreation and heterosexual complementarity,” he wrote.

Canon lawyer Dr. Ed Peters, however, writing at “In the Light of the Law,” disagrees that the Church should stop using the word, “Marriage:”

Marriage (and I’m talking about marriage, not Matrimony yet) is part of the natural law and, I think, one just does not walk away from the natural law. Marriage was not abolished by Jesus, it was (under certain circumstances the Church has worked out over the centuries) raised by Him to the level of a sacrament we call Matrimony. But before anything else, Matrimony is marriage, and it never ceases to be marriage, and if whatever we’re talking about is not marriage then it CANNOT be Matrimony…

The vast majority of the world enters marriage (not Matrimony), and if the Church stops defending and promoting marriage, she abandons most of the human race to whatever havoc the Evil One feels like waging in its regard. But there’s still more wrong here with dumping marriage.

The AP reports that Eric Rassbach, an attorney with the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, said it is not likely the government would attempt to force a pastor to perform a same-sex marriage, but that churches that rent out their halls and facilities to the general public could experience difficulties if they decline to rent to gay couples.

Rassbach suggests that churches that are nondenominational or not bound by the policies of a larger hierarchy might want to develop a written policy about marriage before a dispute arises.


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