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Presbyterian Reverend Welcomes Ordained Gay Ministers, Awaits Sanctioned Same-Sex Marriages

by Dan Meyer

EDGE Media Network Contributor

Friday July 15, 2011

Call it a case of personal redemption (of sorts!)

The Presbyterian Church announced last week it would allow openly gay and lesbian ministers to become a part of the clergy and get ordained.

"I think what it means is an opening up of the church to everyone," said the Rev. Jean Southard, an honorably retired minister and member of the Boston Presbytery. "Churches put signs up that say 'all are welcome,' but then they restrict who may enter their churches and who can be considered leadership material."

Southard said the church has ordained gay and lesbian ministers for centuries, but kept them in the closet. "What this new part of our constitution does is enables them to serve openly without fear of being prosecuted," she said. "It is a huge step forward."

Southard herself was ostracized for performing a same-sex marriage ceremony back in 2008, leading to a three-year long trial.

"It wasn't the first same-gender marriage I had done, nor would it be the last," she explained to EDGE.

It was this particular marriage, however, against which someone decided to speak out. After the complaint was brought to the head of the Boston Presbytery, a judge determined that while Southard had indeed married the couple, she was not guilty of violating the church's constitution.

The prosecution team decided to appeal that judge's decision, which led to the clergywoman being found guilty by the Senate of the Northeast.

"They decided that the definition of marriage in our constitution [did not include same-sex marriage] and that I should not have done the marriage," said Southard.

Southard and her lawyer appealed the case to the National Presbyterian Church Judicial Commission, which ultimately found her not guilty. The panel explained that confusion around the actual marriage law in the Presbytery's constitution prompted the decision. And an interpretation that had explicitly barred clergy members from performing same-sex ceremonies when Southard married the couple had not been provided.

"Two months after I did the wedding, they issued an interpretation saying that we could not do same gender weddings," said Southard.

So while same-gender marriages remain illegal in the Presbytery, the church's next step is an effort to establish a relationship with the congregation built upon trust and acceptance. While the Presbytery has yet to approve nuptials for same-sex couples within the church, Southard and others consider the allowance of gay and lesbian ministers to be ordained to be a step in the right direction.

Southard maintains the church doesn't "really have" the resources to prosecute marriage cases. She added that many of the clergymen know marriage equality is "right," suggesting that a change in the constitution could be right around the corner.

"They [LGBT people] are precious and important to our well-being as a human society," she said.

When asked whether she thought the new law allowing gay ministers to be ordained would have an impact on other religious institutions, she wasn't too sure. "It's hard to say," responded Southard. "I think yes, because each time [equality] is achieved in one area, it makes it just a little bit easier to achieve that justice in another."

Dan Meyer is a young professional whose stories have appeared in publications such as The Advocate online and UCLA's LGBT magazine entitled "OutWrite." He is also a part-time ESL teacher in Boston.

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