Oregon Church Clergy Refuse to Sign Marriage Certificates in Pro-Gay Gesture

by Kilian Melloy

EDGE Staff Reporter

Tuesday January 6, 2009

An Oregon church dedicated to equal civil protections for the GLBT community has announced that its clergy will not sign off on marriages for straight couples until gay and lesbian families have the same access to marriage as do straights.

A Jan. 5 article in the Ashland Daily Tidings reported that the First Congregational United Church of Christ's Rev. Pam Shepherd, seeing the act of signing marriage licenses for heterosexual couples as a form of discrimination against gays and lesbians, decided that in the name of fairness no licenses should be dignified with the signature of the church's clergy until all families receive equal treatment under the law.

The article quoted Rev. Shepherd as saying, "I've been for civil rights for gay and lesbian people for a long, long time, but I never thought, 'I'm helping the discrimination every time I sign a license.'"

Added Rev. Shepherd, "Every time I sign a license, it's like I'm saying, 'OK,' but it's not OK."

The very act of signing a legal document, Shepherd said, runs counter to the American tradition of a separation between religious faith and governmental authority.

Said the reverend, "We've blurred equal protection under the law and civil rights of all people with the right of faith communities to marry or refuse to marry anyone they want.

"Our faith communities need to struggle about what the Bible says about gay people and gay marriages, but the government should be deciding who gets civil rights based on the Constitution.

"The Constitution is very clearly based on life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, and if marriage is not the pursuit of happiness, what is?"

In total, four of the church's clergy--Shepherd and three others, all retired--have declared in a letter that they are renouncing the signing of marriage licenses.

That doesn't mean that they won't perform wedding ceremonies: they will, but couples they marry will have to get justices of the peace or judges to sign their licenses.

The four clergy have the full support of the church's Council, the article said, even if they may not have the support of all other people of faith.

Said Rev. Shepherd, "I know a lot of other ministers in the community will disagree with us, but it grows out of our faithful reading of the Bible and our attempt to follow Jesus."

Added Rev. Shepherd, "For us, it's a faith issue. It's not just a political stand."

Said church member Leslie A. Stone, "When our straight allies stand up for us and our right to protect our families and treat us with respect, I think that's fabulous."

Stone continued, "I was thrilled that Pam had this idea because it's an opportunity for more people to become educated on the inequalities that exist for same sex couples who are committed to each other and want to protect their relationships."

Fellow clergyman Charles Harlow, one of the other three who will no longer sign marriage licenses, said, "I believe in equality, I believe in justice, and I'm not against love."

Added Harlow, "I think we need more of it in the world, not less, and people shouldn't be beating other people over the head because they like a person that is the same gender they are."

Another article in the same edition of the Daily Tidings said that the church, which is located in Ashland, a south-central Oregon community of 20,000, would be participating in a Join the Impact event on Jan. 10.

Join the Impact was formed in the wake of California voters narrowly approving an anti-gay measure, Proposition 8, in November. The measure rescinds what had been the existing right of gay and lesbian families to marry in that state.

The article said that clergy at the First Congregational United Church of Christ will marry gay and lesbian couples in religious, but legally non-binding, ceremonies that day, starting at 10:30 a.m.

The church will also invite people to add their signatures to a letter addressed to President-elect Barack Obama, encouraging him to keep his campaign promise to repeal the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), the 1996 law that bans any federal recognition of gay and lesbian families, even if they have been granted marriage by the state in which they live.

At present, only Massachusetts and Connecticut offer marriage equality, but can only do so at the state level, due to DOMA.

DOMA also allows states that do not extend marriage equality to refuse to recognize marriages performed in states that do offer families marriage parity.

Barack Obama is not alone in renouncing DOMA; the former Congressman who wrote the measure, Bob Barr, has also come out against the law, saying that it needs to be repealed to preserve states' rights.

Meanwhile, in other cities around America, Join the Impact-related events advocating the repeal of DOMA will be taking place.

Since the November passage of Proposition 8, Join the Impact has coordinated events and demonstrations around the country.

More than 300 cities have seen anti-Prop. 8 demonstrations take place; despite the vast majority of those demonstrations being carried out peacefully, right-wing groups have condemned such demonstrations, claiming that gays and lesbians have acted in a systematically "violent" manner and calling those opposed to the anti-gay measure "fascists" who seek to disregard the will of the electorate.

The Jan. 10 events supporting the repeal of DOMA are also intended to be peaceful.

Said Stone, who has helped to organize the event at the church, "The purpose of the national event is to basically take to the streets again and let people know that Barack Obama made a lot of promises to the community, specifically, repealing the Defense of Marriage Act, and we're gathering signature to send along with everybody else to make sure he stays on top of this."

Added Stone, "We want Obama to follow through on what he said when he courted our votes."

Obama came under heavy criticism from the GLBT community when he chose megachurch pastor Rick Warren--who campaigned for Prop. 8--to deliver the invocation at Obama's inaugural, which will take place later this month.

Kilian Melloy serves as EDGE Media Network's Associate Arts Editor and Staff Contributor. His professional memberships include the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association, the Boston Online Film Critics Association, The Gay and Lesbian Entertainment Critics Association, and the Boston Theater Critics Association's Elliot Norton Awards Committee.