Where Christian churches, other religions stand on gay marriage
The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) plans to hold a historic vote on same-sex marriage this week that could reverberate beyond the church’s nearly 2 million members. Church leaders gathering in Detroit are expected to decide as early as today whether to allow gay marriage or to continue to prohibit it, a move some Christian leaders believe could influence other centrist and liberal mainline Protestant churches as they also grapple with the issue.
In the last two decades, several religious groups have moved to allow same-sex couples to marry within their traditions. This includes the Reform and Conservative Jewish movements, Unitarian Universalist Association and the United Church of Christ.
At the same time, many of the largest religious institutions have remained firmly against allowing same-sex marriage, including the Roman Catholic Church, the Orthodox Jewish movement, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, as well as the Southern Baptist Convention and other evangelical Protestant denominations. (Pew Research Center’s Religion and Public Life Project has published a fact sheet on religious groups’ positions on same-sex marriage.)
Among the four largest mainline Protestant churches, however, the same-sex marriage debate has not been so simple. The Episcopal Church, the United Methodist Church, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) and the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) (not to be confused with the Presbyterian Church of America, which opposes same-sex marriage) have wrestled with the issue for years, often as part of a larger debate on the role of gays and lesbians in the church.
And while all of the major mainline denominations now allow gay clergy and welcome openly LGBT members, none of these churches have fully embraced same-sex marriage.
This is not the case for members of the mainline Protestant churches. Indeed, a solid majority of people who identify as mainliners now favor allowing gays and lesbians to wed. In a survey we conducted in February, 62% of mainline Protestants now say they favor same-sex marriage, up from just 34% a decade earlier in 2004.
Of the four mainline Protestant groups, the Evangelical Lutherans have come closest to fully sanctioning same-sex marriage. In 2009, the church passed a resolution recognizing that there was no church-wide consensus on the issue and giving its ministers the option of marrying same-sex couples.
Two other major mainline Protestant denominations now allow congregations to bless same-sex unions. The first to do so was the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), which issued a decision in 2000 allowing its ministers to bless same-sex unions as long as those ceremonies do not equate these unions with marriage. In 2012, the Episcopal Church followed suit, approving an official liturgy for blessing same-sex unions that largely resembles a marriage ceremony without officially being one.
The United Methodist Church (which does not allow same-sex blessings or marriages) also has been intensely debating the issue, particularly in the last year or so, after a church court tried and eventually defrocked Frank Schaefer, a Methodist minister who had performed a same-sex marriage ceremony for his gay son. In recent months, the action against Schaeffer has split the church, with some clergy flouting the rules and marrying same-sex couples and other, more conservative, members threatening to leave if the church does not hold to its current rules prohibiting gay marriage.
The Presbyterian, Episcopal and Lutheran churches also have endured similar turmoil over gay marriage and similar issues, with some more liberal congregations and even bishops allowing actual marriage ceremonies (as opposed to blessings) in their churches and other more conservative congregations and bishops officially leaving their national church to protest what they see as its growing acceptance not just of same-sex marriage, but of gay ordination and other related issues.
UPDATE: On June 19, the church’s General Assembly voted to sanction same-sex marriages, a decision that will take effect only if a majority of the church’s 172 regional presbyteries approve it over the next year.
David Masci is a Senior Researcher at the Pew Research Center’s Religion & Public Life Project.