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Same-sex marriage: Modesto church leaders, others take sides

In the June newsletter from College Avenue Congregational Church, the Rev. Michael Schiefelbein says, "This is the most traditional thing I'll ever say as a pastor: I urge all of you couples living together and calling yourselves partners to make honest people of yourselves and get married."

He'll perform the first two same-sex marriages in Modesto on Tuesday, if all goes according to plan, on the first day that such marriages become legal. One lesbian couple and one gay couple plan to be among the first to apply for a marriage license when the Stanislaus County clerk's office opens at 8 a.m. Instead of lines for "bride" and "groom," the new forms say "Party A" and "Party B."

The change follows a May 15 ruling by the California Supreme Court. In a 4-3 decision, the court ruled that the state constitution gives same-sex couples the same right as heterosexual couples to wed. The court later, on the same 4-3 split, denied an attempt to stay the ruling until a November vote on a ballot initiative, which if passed would change the state constitution to ban gay marriages.

"For us, it's a cause of celebration," said Schiefelbein, who married his partner, Steve Klinkerman, in 2005 in Toronto. "It's a matter of recognizing relationships that exist and have existed for a long, long time, some for 30 years, some with children or property. It gives dignity to their relationship and helps them to have that standing in the community."

It also, he added, is a matter of faith for many.

"It's a faith issue because people are all created in the image of God," he said. "This is recognizing the worth of every person to enter into a covenant with another person and be held accountable within our community of faith."

He rejects the views of Christians who say that homosexuality is a sin or a perversion.

"In Galatians, it says: 'No Jew or Greek, no slave or free, no male or female.' The distinction (against homosexuality) that Christians make shouldn't happen. We recognize we're all one in Christ."

And now, one in marriage as well.

Scripture as ethical guidelines

Other area faith traditions and leaders agree with Schiefelbein.

The Rev. Grace Simons, pastor of Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Stanislaus County, said her church has "been providing ceremonies of union for decades" and is "glad to see the state of California recognize these commitments."

"Some of these couples have been together for decades, far longer than the average length of heterosexual marriages," Simons said. "They are stable fam-ilies and contributors to our communities."

Simons has been booked to officiate at "a couple" of same-sex weddings later this year.

The Rev. Debra Brady of Modesto's First United Methodist Church said she's personally in favor of gay marriages, but because her denomination narrowly defeated a proposal for such unions at its national convention last month she can't conduct those weddings in her church. However, she said two same-sex couples in the congregation have said they plan to be married elsewhere this summer.

"It's a complicated issue," she said, acknowledging the Bible does speak against homosexuality. "But I think that the Bible did not envision the situation we have today. There are some places where homosexuality is talked about in the Old Testament. It's in the purity codes, along with don't eat lobster and don't wear cotton with wool.

"There are a lot of things about our life that the Bible doesn't refer to -- stem cell research, environmental pollution. We have to draw ethical guidelines from the Scriptures and apply them to our life."

Schiefelbein said interpreting Scripture depends on a person's mind-set.

"Everybody reads the Bible through some lens," he said. "My lens, and (that of) our church and denomination, is the life and teaching of Jesus -- that question: What would Jesus do? We would say the Gospel is mainly about compassion. It's including all people at the table.

"What did Jesus say over and over again? He talked about forgiving. He talked about not judging. He constantly critiqued religious leaders who decided who were to be admitted and who weren't. Jesus always got angry when people were judging."

Love, but in the truth

Other faith leaders disagree with that interpretation.

"Certainly Jesus is all about reconciliation and love, but always in the truth," said the Most Rev. Stephen Blaire, Catholic bishop of the Stockton Diocese. "We can never say what Jesus would do, but only what we should do as faithful disciples of Jesus Christ in the church.

"Marriage as found in the sacred Scriptures (both Old and New Testament) and in the living tradition of the church is understood as a bond or covenant between a man and a woman, which includes the procreation of children. ... It is disturbing that four judges can change the traditional understanding of the nature of marriage."

Father Jon Magoulias of Modesto's Greek Orthodox Church of the Annunciation said:

"Marriage is not simply a social institution, it is an eternal vocation of the kingdom. A husband and a wife are called by the Holy Spirit not only to live together but also to share their Christian life together so that each, with the aid of the other, may grow closer to God and become the persons they are meant to be. ...

"As the coming kingdom is concerned, there is 'neither male nor female.' But the kingdom has not yet come, and the male and female roles must remain distinct, especially in regard to what we understand family to be. Each has a specific role to fulfill. Obviously, there is overlapping in many areas. But for the male to replace the female or vice versa has never been in God's plan.

"A good example is marriage between two males or two females. This can never be acceptable because it makes marriage as instituted by God an abomination."

Magoulias also pointed out that Paul, writer of many of the New Testament letters, uses marriage to describe the relationship between Christ the bridegroom and humanity, his bride.

"In this regard, Saint Paul tells a man and a woman entering marriage that the icon of Christ and his church should be their role model."

Some choose to wait

Role models aren't on the mind of Vince DeBow, moderator at College Avenue Congregational, who said he and his partner of two years don't have plans to get married. They're waiting to see what happens in November.

If the vote on a state constitutional amendment passes in November, it will supersede the new law mandated by the state Supreme Court. DeBow believes that means that not only will no more same-sex marriages be allowed, but those conducted in the interim will be invalidated.

And, he added: "I know a lot of people in the gay community who don't support the marriage. They're iffy on that. They'd be happy if we just had all the benefits."

Benefits such as filing joint state and federal tax returns or allowing partners to inherit without writing a will, none of which are permitted under the civil unions or domestic partnerships in the states that have them.

DeBow's pastor, Schiefelbein, is all for same-sex marriages and said anti-gay views are similar to those once held against blacks.

"Interracial marriages were outlawed in many places until the 1960s," he said. "It seemed unnatural to a lot of people. They were afraid of having people who were African-American living in their own community. Then what? Have blacks and whites married. Then what? Fear of children who were biracial.

"What I hope is that with (same-sex) marriages, the fear that people have will disappear when they see we only have something to gain with commitment by individuals.

"I already have four or five other weddings scheduled. I think it's great for people to be married. As a pastor, it's a really Christian thing to say: Get married. What I hope in terms of the law in November, if people witness the joy that this brings, hopefully when they go to the polls in November, they will think about that. 'It may not be for me, but why do I want to deny this to other people? It doesn't hurt my marriage.' "

On a slippery slope

It does hurt society, said David, a Turlock resident who once struggled with homosexual temptations. He went to counseling in Sacramento through Exodus International and has been married for 10 years. To protect family members, he asked that his full name not be used.

He calls gay marriages "immoral," but also believes the church as a whole needs to learn to respond to homosexuals with truth "tempered by love. I do believe there are many people in the homosexual community who have been hurt."

He rejects the idea that the Bible is wishy-washy on the issue.

"Jesus didn't mention lots of things, but that doesn't mean we can't say they're not wrong or sinful," he said. "He never mentioned incest. And he never said (homosexuality) was OK. There wasn't any confusion among the people about that issue, so he didn't clarify it."

He said gay marriages "will hurt society. It ends up being a kind of slippery slope. There are other things to come. Who knows what other moral kinds of taboos will become acceptable? Let's talk about polygamy. Let's talk bisexual. Let's talk about whatever.

"I believe that since homosexuality is a form of emotional brokenness, that these people aren't just going to live together. They want families and they want to teach other people that this is a good and acceptable way to live. They don't want to live and let live; they want to create a whole culture that embraces their lifestyle and choices."

Schiefelbein thinks that kind of response comes out of fear.

"I wouldn't choose to be Episcopalian," he said. "I have a lot of reasons why I wouldn't, but I wouldn't judge them. But if anytime I saw Episcopalians, my blood pressure went up, there must be some trigger that is being pushed. If there's some attempt to try to change or control other people, there must be some kind of fear."

He doesn't believe rational, even-tempered people can disagree with him based on Scripture or other religious values.

"I see hatred. I have known hatred from people who don't know me or anything about me. Hatred is something that's fear-based. It's not what Christianity is about at all. Hatred can never be justified in Christianity."

David responded: "I'm not judging every person out there, but just because you don't want to hear it called sin or that it offends you doesn't mean I can't believe it anymore. It's not me who's going to judge homosexuality, it's God."

For Schiefelbein, it all comes down to a godly calling.

"For many people, this kind of relationship is where they most experience the love of God," he said. "It is where they are most spiritually nourished so that they are able to serve their community and their world. And if this is a calling that God places in the human heart, then it is one that should be affirmed and fostered in Christian communities."

Bee staff writer Sue Nowicki can be reached at 578-2012 or snowicki@modbee.com.

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