By SUZANNA K. LOURIE
WINNER OF HONORABLE MENTION, “Best Feature Series” – 2011 LOCAL NY MEDIA ASSOCIATION AWARDS
SARATOGA SPRINGS — Local religious entities expressed mixed reactions to the recent approval of the Marriage Equality Act, which was signed into law June 25 and will take effect in late July, legalizing same-sex marriage in New York. Some say they will perform ceremonies for gay couples, while others will not. Some have yet to decide.
Throughout the debate on the bill, conservatives expressed concern about whether religious groups would be protected against discrimination charges under the new law.
“I haven’t read the law yet, but it’s my understanding that there are safeguards for religious institutions,” said the Rev. Dominic S. Ingemie of the Roman Catholic Church of St. Peter on Broadway in Saratoga Springs.
Ingemie is right. The new law does include safeguards protecting churches from being accused of discrimination if they choose not to perform same-sex marriages.
“We will not be performing same-sex marriages,” Ingemie said. “That’s the universal position of the Roman Catholic Church because it’s our understanding, as we see in scripture and in tradition, that marriage is between a man and a woman.”
On a personal level, Ingemie said he feels the rights of a couple ought to be honored and he does not believe that permitting same-sex marriages will affect the institution of marriage as a whole.
Other churches in the area also have decided not to perform same-sex ceremonies, although each congregation’s rationale differs.
“We will not perform same-sex marriage services,” said Senior Pastor Dale Jensen of Saratoga Abundant Life Church in Saratoga Springs, a non-denominational Christian church. “When we make laws like this, it marginalizes marriage to the point where eventually it won’t mean anything in our culture — it puts the whole institution at stake.”
The Rev. Steve Harness of Wilton Baptist Church in Wilton, holds a similar opinion, and said his congregation will not officiate same-sex marriages.
“We are an independent Baptist church so I can’t speak for the national Baptist tradition, but we follow closely what the Bible teaches, and I believe most other independent Baptist churches would feel the same,” Harness said.
Not every local church has reached a decision about whether it will perform same-sex services.
“The law is so new, it just got passed this week and it’s not something this congregation has really given any thought to whatsoever,” said Rabbi Kenneth Blatt of the conservative Jewish Congregation Shaara T’fille in Saratoga Springs. “We have a pretty liberal congregation here, but I have no idea how they feel about this, and I’m not even 100 percent sure how I feel about it.”
Blatt’s mixed feelings are echoed in the three subdivisions of Judaism: the more liberal reconstructionists, the moderate reformists and the conservative strand. Each of the three schools is at a different stage of applying gay rights in their own tradition.
“The reconstructionists fully endorse same-sex civil unions, but they encourage civil ceremonies over ceremonies performed by a clergyman,” Blatt said.
In 2000, Blatt said the reform movement voted to support colleagues in their tradition who chose to perform same-sex marriages. Within the conservative movement, which Blatt is a part of, feelings toward gay marriage are mixed.
“The Committee on Jewish Law and Standards of the Conservative Rabbinical Assembly met in 2006 to discuss the issue, but there was no unanimity so it was left up to the individual synagogue,” Blatt said. “Most people are perfectly comfortable with civil ceremonies, but because of the way the Bible talks about marriage it’s an issue we really need some guidance from the church leadership about.”
Although the scripture clearly states marriage is between a man and a woman, Blatt said since it was written more than 2,000 years ago, most people don’t live by a strict interpretation of the Bible.
“That’s why we have the Talmud, to try to explain and interpret the Bible,” Blatt explained. “Religion is not written in stone. Times change. This is so new, and we’re still grappling with a lot of questions.”
“It’s a personal matter, but I think people should be allowed to marry,” Blatt said. “I’m glad the state passed the law.”
Local Methodist and Presbyterian church leaders agree, and go one step further by choosing to conduct same-sex marriages in the future.
The Presbyterian-New England Congregational Church in Saratoga Springs is a combination of two churches: the United Church of Christ and the Presbyterian Church of the United States.
“The national UCC denomination is fine with it,” UCC-ordained Rev. Eleanor Stanton of the Presbyterian-New England Congregational Church said about the congregation’s position on gay marriage. “I’m hoping to officiate some same-sex marriages in the future.”
The church’s other Presbyterian-ordained pastor, the Rev. Jay Eckman, has been a longtime advocate of same-sex marriage and equal rights, both in and out of the church.
“When Jesus asked what the greatest commandment was, he said, ‘to love God and love one another,’ ” Eckman said. “Prejudice against gays is not loving each other.”
In addition to the Presbyterian-New England Congregational Church, the Saratoga Springs United Methodist Church on Fifth Avenue also plans to conduct same-sex marriages.
“I am delighted with the vote, and I did announce to my congregation on Sunday that I would be open to performing same-sex marriages,” the Rev. Brolin C. Parker said.
Either way, the religious protections built into the new bill legalizing gay marriage work to protect each church’s decision. And for at least one same-sex couple planning to marry, that’s OK.
“We were never banging on the door of a Catholic church trying to force them to marry us,” said Ralph Hays of Wilton, who has plans to marry his partner, Kevin Martin, this fall.
“The law protects churches, and our getting married doesn’t hurt anybody under the Marriage Equality Act.”