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Gay marriage ruling won't directly affect churches, bishop says

11/20/2003 News media contact: Linda Bloom · (646) 369-3759 · New York

A UMNS Report By Linda Bloom*

A Massachusetts court ruling that paves the way for same-sex marriages should have no direct effect on the churches in that state, according to United Methodist Bishop Susan Hassinger.

Hassinger, who presides over the United Methodist Church's New England Annual (regional) Conference, called the ruling "a civil matter, not a religious matter."

The Nov. 18 decision by the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court declared that gay couples have the right to marry under the state's constitution. The court gave the Massachusetts legislature 180 days to create the legal structure needed to allow such marriages.

Hassinger, based in Lawrence, Mass., said the denomination's Book of Discipline "identifies marriage as a covenant and specifically says shared fidelity between a man and a woman." That definition of marriage remains unless the denomination votes to change it, she stressed.

Found in Paragraph 161 of the Social Principles, the section on marriage states, "We affirm the sanctity of the marriage covenant that is expressed in love, mutual support, personal commitment and shared fidelity between a man and a woman."

However, she pointed out that the Social Principles also recognize equal rights regardless of sexual orientation. "In a sense, we walk two sides of a fence," the bishop said.

That section of Paragraph 162 states that "certain basic human rights and civil liberties are due all persons. We are committed to supporting those rights and liberties for homosexual persons. We see a clear issue of simple justice in protecting their rightful claims where they have shared material resources, pensions, guardian relationships, mutual powers of attorney and other such lawful claims typically attendant to contractual relationships that involve shared contributions, responsibilities, liabilities and equal protection before the law."

Hassinger noted that theological understandings of marriage and covenant within the Judeo-Christian tradition "have changed across the millennia."

"In the Old Testament, the Ten Commandments talk about the relationship between a man and a woman, in essence, with the woman seen as property," she said. "Jesus, with his discussion of marriage and divorce, seems to recognize a more equal relationship between a man and a woman."

Paul's writings, she added, show a growing understanding that, in relationship with God, "all of us are equal."

The Book of Discipline refers to a shared commitment within a marriage, Hassinger said. An essential part of a religious marriage ceremony is that the couple is making a covenant in the presence of God and with the support of the community.

Pastors in the United States are authorized "to perform a ceremony that has civil and legal implications" as well as religious ones. But in many other countries, she pointed out, a couple may have two marriage services - a civil service declaring a contract in the eyes of the law and another service acknowledging the relationship before the community and God.

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*Bloom is a United Methodist News Service news writer based in New York.

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