SACRAMENTO, Calif. – The congregation cheered.
When Barbara Brecher and Terry Allen married in June 2008, during the brief window that year when same-sex marriage was legal in California, they asked the entire membership of Congregation B’nai Israel to witness the ceremony. Hundreds of congregants took them up on the invitation.
Senior rabbi Mona Alfi, a longtime supporter of same-sex unions, pronounced the couple legally wed, and the congregation erupted in applause.
“People went nuts,” said Barbara Allen-Brecher, now 57, an administrative law judge. “They were hooting and hollering. Did I cry? Oh, of course.”
What it meant to her to marry within her faith — not just in the eyes of the state but also the eyes of her congregation — is simple: It meant everything.
“I couldn’t imagine not doing it that way,” she said. “I can’t express the joy we experienced having the opportunity to do it in the sanctuary.”
Gay and lesbian couples can legally marry today in 13 states, including California. But if they want to marry within their faith, like Barbara and Terry Allen-Brecher, options vary widely from denomination to denomination across the religious spectrum.
‘MARRIAGE IS A CIVIL CEREMONY’
From the viewpoint of America’s religious institutions, the U.S. Supreme Court’s recent landmark decisions on the federal Defense of Marriage Act and California’s Proposition 8 changed nothing.
As Rick Schlosser, California Council of Churches executive director, said, the faiths that support same-sex marriage remain supportive, and those in opposition remain opposed.
“Marriage is a civil ceremony,” he said. “Churches perform the religious ceremony and can be authorized to represent the state for the civil part.
“Essentially, the confusion comes when people think of marriage only as a religious ceremony.”
Denominations change their positions slowly, Schlosser said, not in a matter of months but over years. And many religious bodies have yet to make any change in their stance on whether to include same-sex marriage as a rite.
Under the U.S. Constitution, they don’t have to.
“There’s no question of that,” said Douglas NeJaime, a University of California, Irvine, law professor and expert on gender law issues. “They’re constitutionally protected. No religious bodies will be asked by the state to perform marriages for same-sex couples.”
Similarly, the Constitution allows denominations the freedom not to perform interracial marriages, but these days, experts said, those that refuse to marry interracial couples are considered out of touch with the times.
A California law that took effect in January reinforces the religious exemption granted to denominations that choose not to solemnize same-sex weddings.
“I view that as stating what’s already law, but it comforts people,” said NeJaime. “During the Proposition 8 campaign, there were people saying that churches would have to perform same-sex marriages. If you listened to them, you’d be worried.”
CONGREGANTS’ VIEWS CHANGING
Even so, churchgoers’ opinions on same-sex marriage are slowly changing.
A recent Pew Research Center survey showed that the proportion of American congregants who think homosexuality is a sin has dropped to 45 percent in the past decade. Three-fourths of that group also said they oppose gay and lesbian marriage, while 84 percent of people who don’t think it’s sinful support same-sex marriage.
Some religious bodies, like Reform Judaism, the Episcopal Church and the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America, leave it up to individual congregations and clergy to decide. Others, like the Roman Catholic Church, expressly forbid it.
“The church position is that gays acting on their sexuality is wrong,” said Monsignor James Murphy of the Sacramento Catholic Diocese.”So we’re against gay marriage. It’s clear. That’s not going to change.”
Pope Francis’ recent comments suggesting he would not judge priests simply because they have a homosexual orientation reflect a more compassionate tone, not a change in doctrine, Murphy said.
At 70, Jan Seaman is a committed Roman Catholic, active in St. Francis of Assisi Parish in midtown Sacramento. She would like to marry her partner of 21 years, Mary Marks.
Just not in the church.
“When we get married, we’ll do something like a nice garden party,” said Seaman, a retired university professor. “I don’t have any affinity for getting married in church.”
She volunteers with St. Francis’ new outreach ministry for lesbian and gay parishioners, hoping to welcome back those who left the church in 2008, alienated by the Proposition 8 campaign.
“The church is like my political party,” said Seaman. “I don’t agree with everything they say and do, but I’m more comfortable in a Catholic church.”
Eric Hawkins, a spokesman for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, said the Mormon Church defines marriage as being between a man and woman.
That? fine with Holly Reynolds, a lifelong Mormon who lives in Sacramento. At 35, she’s been married for 13 years and is the mother of four.
“I’m very welcoming and accepting of people regardless of their sexual orientation,” she said. “But I’m in favor of marriage between men and women.”
Partly, that’s because she thinks children need to be raised by both a mother and a father, she said.
“It’s not a matter of what my church says I need to believe,” she said.
INTERPRETING THE SCRIPTURES
In Granite Bay, Bayside Church doesn’t perform same-sex marriages, either. But Curt Harlow, one of the pastors at the 14,000-member nondenominational Christian church, said it’s likely someone has asked.
“We would tell them that everyone is welcome here,” he said. “But we hold to the biblical view that marriage is between one man and one woman. That’s the long and short of it.”
Clergy members from other faiths disagree with that interpretation of the Scriptures.
The Rev. Brian Baker, dean of Sacramento’s Trinity Episcopal Cathedral, recently performed his first same-sex wedding ceremony in the church.
“Why are we choosing one passage and ignoring the passage that says you can stone your child if he’s rude to you?” he said.
“The Bible until recently was used to say that marriage between the races was wrong. This is a very similar argument, I think. Marriage has been a very evolving target, and this is one more evolution in the cycle.”
In 2008, Alfi performed more than 15 same-sex weddings at Congregation B’nai Israel. Most involved longtime couples such as the Allen-Brechers, who have been together for more than two decades.
For most of those couples, Alfi said, marrying in their faith made a difference in their lives.
“There were a number of couples, I called them and said, ‘Are you going to get married?’ “said Alfi. “They said they’d done the legal things they needed to do, and I said, ‘This is different. Trust me, you’ll feel different.’ “
“They were shocked at how much it meant to them to stand in front of their friends and family and be married by a rabbi.”