Where Christian churches, other religions stand on gay marriage
The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) joined other religious groups Tuesday in a vote that formally sanctions same-sex marriage. The 1.7 million-member church voted to amend its constitution to allow gay marriage ceremonies, a move widely anticipated after a step the church took last summer to allow its clergy to marry same-sex couples.
The debate within the church has already led some congregations to break away and join other, more conservative Presbyterian denominations, and the vote could prompt even more defections. At the same time, the church’s decision could influence other centrist and liberal mainline Protestant churches that have grappled with the issue but have not formally agreed to allow same-sex unions.
In the past two decades, several other religious groups have moved to allow same-sex couples to marry within their traditions. This includes the Reform and Conservative Jewish movements, the 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 and the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, as well as the Southern Baptist Convention and other evangelical Protestant denominations. (Pew Research Center has published a fact sheet on religious groups’ positions on same-sex marriage.)
Among the four largest mainline Protestant churches, 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, only two of these churches, the Presbyterians and the Evangelical Lutherans, have sanctioned same-sex marriage.
This is not the case for members of the mainline Protestant churches. A solid majority of people who identify as mainliners now favor allowing gays and lesbians to wed. In a survey we conducted in September 2014, 60% of mainline Protestants now say they favor same-sex marriage, up from just 34% a decade earlier in 2004.
Prior to Tuesday’s vote, both the Presbyterians and the Evangelical Lutherans had given their ministers the option of marrying same-sex couples. The vote Tuesday by the Presbyterians formalizes this policy by adding it to the church’s constitution. The decision, which will take effect in June, also allows clergy to opt out of marrying same-sex couples.
Of the two remaining major mainline Protestant denominations, the Episcopal Church has come closest to sanctioning gay marriage. In 2012, it passed an official liturgy for blessing same-sex unions that largely resembles a marriage ceremony without officially being one.
The United Methodist Church does not allow same-sex blessings or marriages. But the United Methodists also have been intensely debating the issue, particularly in the past year or so, after a church court tried, defrocked and eventually reinstated Frank Schaefer, a Methodist minister who had performed a same-sex marriage ceremony for his gay son. Schaefer’s case 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.
This is an update of a blog post originally published June 18, 2014.
David Masci is a senior researcher focusing on religion at Pew Research Center.