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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Law puts churches on varied paths about same-sex weddings

Some welcome them; for others, it’s more complicated

The Rev. Todd Eklof, left, of the Unitarian Universalist Church of Spokane, hasn’t performed a wedding since 2003 in protest of bans on same-sex marriage. Eklof will perform the marriage ceremony for the Rev. Tracy Springberry, center, and her partner, Lisa Avery. (Dan Pelle)

For some pastors, Washington’s new law allowing same-sex marriage only adds a piece of paperwork to the blessings they already give to gay couples making a lifelong commitment.

For others, the new law has no bearing because their church rules already bar them from marrying people of the same sex.

But for dozens of churches in Spokane that have taken steps to recognize gay relationships, Tuesday’s vote may create confusion or add pressure to clarify positions.

Although most churches already have guidelines to follow on same-sex marriage, some – especially in the mainline Protestant tradition – have vague or conflicting rules. And some denominations allow individual congregations to make the decision.

Some congregations with pastors or members who feel strongly may risk being forced out, either for wanting to perform same-sex marriages or not wanting to be affiliated with a branch of Christianity that does. At least one Presbyterian minister in Spokane is planning to go against the rules of his denomination and perform same-sex marriages.

Among churches and other houses of worship that will perform same-sex marriages in Spokane: Unitarian Universalist Church of Spokane, Westminster Congregational United Church of Christ, Veradale United Church of Christ, Bethany Presbyterian, Unity Church, Spokane Buddhist Temple and Congregation Emanu-el, a Jewish reform congregation that worships at the Unitarian church.

Gray areas

Local Lutheran and Episcopal congregations are among those with the most decisions needed in the short term.

Bishop Martin Wells, who leads the Eastern Washington-Idaho Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, said based on decisions the church made in 2009 he will advise congregations “to refer to your congregation’s marriage policy.” In other words, each congregation will decide if they are willing to perform ceremonies for same-sex couples. Those ceremonies, however, would not be considered marriages by the church because the church still defines marriage as “a lifelong commitment between a man and a woman.”

Even so, Wells said, he would expect pastors to be willing to sign a legal marriage certificate after a same-sex ceremony as they would for a man and woman getting married.

“We may not be ready to call what they’re doing a marriage, but this is confusing – and it’s confusing to me,” Wells said.

Another unresolved issue in the denomination is that it has not created a liturgy for same-sex unions. That means that congregations must create their own, probably based on the Lutheran marriage ceremony, he said.

“They would be looking for a model that worked for them,” Wells said.

The Episcopalian Church over the summer approved for trial use a commitment ceremony for same-sex couples. But unlike in the Lutheran synod, those blessings won’t necessarily be followed by a legal marriage, at least in Spokane.

Jim Waggoner, bishop of the Episcopalian Diocese of Spokane, said he has decided to allow willing congregations to perform commitment ceremonies for same-sex couples. But pastors won’t sign marriage certificates afterward.

“We are not saying that this is the very same thing as the traditional understanding of marriage,” Waggoner said. “The difference is it is a blessing of a same-sex relationship and not a pronouncement of marriage.”

Waggoner said the “requirements are nothing less” among same-sex couples who commit to each other in the new ceremony as for couples who marry.

“What we’re doing was not really affected one way or another by what Washington has done,” he said.

A new beginning

The Rev. Todd Eklof, who leads the Unitarian Universalist Church of Spokane, hasn’t officiated a marriage ceremony for anyone since 2003. He stopped leading weddings in protest of the wave of states that passed constitutional amendments defining marriage as between a man and a woman because he believed those rules were an infringement on his religion, which has long supported same-sex unions.

Once the new law becomes effective next month, he will be available for weddings once again.

“This is something that I’ve not felt I could duly do in good conscience for 10 years,” he said. “This has been a huge breakthrough for me because now I’m free to perform my ministerial services to everyone.”

He’s already been asked to officiate a wedding for the Rev. Tracy Springberry, who leads the North Idaho Unitarian Universalist Fellowship. Springberry and her partner of nine years, Lisa Avery, who live in Spokane, plan to marry next year.

Springberry has officiated about 15 weddings since she became a pastor.

“It actually matters more than I thought it would,” Springberry said of the change in the law. “What’s been really fun is how excited the people in our lives are. It’s so important for the congregation to get together and say, ‘Hallelujah.’ ”

The Spokane Buddhist Temple in Spokane’s South Perry District is affiliated with the Buddhist Churches of America, which supports same-sex marriage, said the temple’s Christine Marr, who will be ordained a Buddhist minister in Japan next month.

“I would treat it like any other marriage,” Marr said. “We’re very happy to promote solid, loving relationships and to have them recognized.”

Pastor Andy CastroLang leads Westminster Congregational United Church of Christ, Spokane’s oldest church, which will perform same-sex marriages like many United Church of Christ congregations do.

“The next couple of weddings are going to be even bigger celebrations because they’re feeling vindicated as couples,” she said. “They’re feeling the respect of civil society and the love of community both.”

Continued debate

One of Spokane’s well-known religious figures, pastor Happy Watkins, publicly supported the same-sex marriage referendum, even though his church, New Hope Baptist, is part of the General Baptist Convention, which clearly opposes same-sex marriage.

Watkins said he will not perform same-sex marriages and would risk getting his church tossed out of the convention if he did.

“With this new law passed, there’s going to be some real discussion,” Watkins said. “My opinion is that we’re still a long ways off before they allow same-sex marriage. I’m a loner.”

Nick Block, pastor at Spokane Friends Church, said the domination to which the Quaker congregation in north Spokane belongs does not allow same-sex marriage. But if a same-sex couple within the church wanted to marry, it would be considered by a committee and then by the whole congregation.

“This is a pretty self-directed group of folks,” Block said. “They’ll make up their own mind and not walk in lockstep with something that was printed some years ago.”

Block said the church has a transgendered member and used to have a same-sex couple.

“We’ve had a couple of real human experiences that made us more open, caring and compassionate,” Block said. “It’s caused us to be a little more humble about some of the hard positions that some communities have taken.”

Pastor Deb Conklin, who leads Liberty Park and St. Paul’s United Methodist congregations, strongly supported the change to the law.

The United Methodist Church does not allow same-sex marriages, but she said she is willing to risk censure to marry same-sex couples in settings outside her church’s building. She said she would not agree to marry a same-sex couple within her church’s building unless her congregation would agree.

“The whole church would talk about it and we would decide what to do,” Conklin said. “My sense is that the congregation would follow the rules of the church.”

Jeremy Sanderson, associate pastor for adult formation at First Presbyterian Church of Spokane, said there’s a “spectrum of opinions” about same-sex marriage within the downtown congregation.

“Some churches seem to be saying, ‘Hey, love people, ignore the word of God.’ Other churches seem to be saying, ‘Love the word of God, ignore people,’ ” Sanderson said. “We are trying to bring the two together, based on our conviction that the only way we can truly and rightly love people is by attending to the word of God.”

The church belongs to Presbyterian Church USA, which narrowly defeated a proposal earlier this year to define marriage as between two people as opposed to between a man and a woman. The denomination recently began allowing congregations to accept pastors who are in committed gay relationships, though the congregation at First Presbyterian has determined that it would not accept a gay minister in a relationship to lead the church.

The Rev. Paul Rodkey, who has led Bethany Presbyterian Church for 27 years, said he will perform same-sex marriages and is willing to risk censure from Presbyterian Church USA.

“I am kind of the bad boy within the Presbyterian ranks,” Rodkey said. “Do we do justice and compassion or do we do appeasement so we can keep people happy?”

Rodkey believes that church leaders are afraid to accept same-sex marriage not out of their reading of the Bible, but out of fear that congregations or members will leave, taking their money with them.

“That’s where 90 percent of this comes from,” he said.