Maryland bishops respond to signing of marriage-equality bill

    Maryland Governor Martin O’Malley signed the Civil Marriage Protection Act that he brought to the state legislature last year. The law will almost certainly be challenged by opponents before it goes into effect Jan. 1, 2013.

    Bishop Eugene Sutton of Maryland and Washington Bishop Mariann Edgar Budde said they will give permission to their clergy to preside at such marriages while Easton Bishop James “Bud” Shand said he would await a pending decision by the church’s General Convention to authorize trial use of a rite to bless same-gender unions.

    Sutton said in a statement issued as the governor was signing the bill that not every priest in the diocese will want to solemnize same-gender marriages.

    “The Episcopal Church, following the teachings and example of our Lord Jesus, respects the dignity of every human being — including those on both sides of this issue. We, like many other Christian bodies who base their decisions on Holy Scripture, tradition and reason, are not of one mind about the marriage of same gender couples,” he said. “Many of us are rejoicing that we in Maryland will be able to provide the church’s blessing upon these committed relationships in marriage, but also many Episcopal clergy in good conscience cannot perform same gender marriages. For those who have discerned that such committed relationships have met the church’s standards of holy matrimony, this bill will permit them to do so, and I am giving them my consent to perform these marriages.”

    In July 2010, Sutton issued guidelines for clergy who wished to conduct same-gender blessings. He also recommended for trial use a rite developed by a committee of the Diocese of Southern Ohio.

    At the time, Sutton based his decision on an action taken by General Convention the year before via Resolution C056, which says that bishops, “particularly those in dioceses within civil jurisdictions where same-gender marriage, civil unions, or domestic partnerships are legal, may provide generous pastoral response to meet the needs of members of this church.”

    In January of this year, the Rev. Madeleine Beard, diocesan public policy coordinator, told the Maryland State Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee that the diocese supported the marriage-equality bill.

    The Diocese of Maryland covers 10 counties and Baltimore.

    In Washington, on Feb. 7 Budde endorsed the Maryland bill. She acknowledged the lack of unanimity on the issue but said she would “allow and encourage” clergy in the diocese to preside at same-gender marriages.

    “I congratulate the Maryland legislature and Governor Martin O’Malley for their courageous and persistent efforts to ensure marriage equity for all Maryland citizens. As soon as the Civil Marriage Protection Act is enacted and same-gender couples can be married in the eyes of the state, I will allow and encourage Episcopal clergy in the Diocese of Washington to preside at such ceremonies, asking that they bring to this ministry the same spiritual intention and pastoral care provided to heterosexual couples seeking marriage in the church,” Budde said in a statement issued during the bill’s signing.

    “Not all Episcopal clergy and congregations support same-gender marriage, and in no way do I intend to force this issue upon them. But for those who feel called to offer the sacramental and spiritual support of the Church to same-gender couples seeking marriage, I gladly give consent and the authority to do so.”

    The diocese includes Montgomery, Prince George’s, Charles and St. Mary’s counties in Maryland. Clergy in the Diocese of Washington have been allowed to bless the relationships of same-sex couples, and clergy in the District of Columbia have been permitted to preside at same-sex civil marriage ceremonies since such marriages became legal there in March 2010.

    Shand, whose Easton diocese covers the eastern third of Maryland, said in a statement that after O’Malley signed the law he would “set in motion a process for the Diocese of Easton to adhere to both the civil law and The Episcopal Church’s canon law.”

    However, he noted that “the policy of this diocese has been not to allow the blessing of same gender individuals, and until the General Convention adopts a resolution regarding this officially, I will abide by this standard.”

    Shand said that in July, convention “will be debating legislation determining what kind of rites of blessing should be used or will be provided.”

    Deputies and bishops “may not vote to pass the legislation now, but may decide to study it for three more years. They may pass such legislation and dates will be announced that will determine when such rites can be used. We need to be patient and respectful of everyone’s views as the debate continues in the civil realms of justice and the councils of our church.”

    Shand said that as a bishop of the Episcopal Church he must “enforce the canons of this church as well as the legislation passed at our General Convention. I also want to respect the viewpoints of individuals on both sides of the question.”

    Shand rooted his statement in both the “generous pastoral response” authority given to bishops by Resolution C056 and the fact that in July the General Convention will consider whether to formally allow its priests bless same-gender unions on a trial basis. Resolution C056 directed the Standing Commission on Liturgy and Music to work with the House of Bishops to collect and develop theological resources and liturgies for blessing same-gender relationships and report to General Convention in July. A website here contains some of the gathered materials.

    In October the commission decided that it would ask the 77th General Convention in July in Indianapolis to authorize trial use of a rite of same-gender blessing. The Rev. Dr. Ruth Meyers, SCLM chair, stressed at the time that the commission’s resolution would not allow clergy to solemnize same-gender marriages.

    “The resolution called for us to develop a liturgy of blessing and that is what we have done, but we realized there is great need for the church to reflect more generally — in light of changing societal and cultural realities, and a whole range of changes in civil law — on how we understand marriage,” Meyers told Episcopal News Service.

    To that end, the commission will also ask convention to authorize a three-year process of reflecting on its understanding of marriage in light of changes in both societal norms and civil law.

    There was considerable action on the same-gender marriage issue in February on many fronts, and that action prompted responses from local Episcopal Church leaders. State of Washington Governor Christine Gregoire signed legislation into law Feb. 13. The law takes effect in June. Opponents of the statute have vowed to seek its repeal through a ballot measure in November that could delay enactment further or halt it entirely.

    The bishops of both the Episcopal dioceses of Olympia and Spokane have said they will make provisions for their clergy to operate within the new Washington law. The Spokane diocese also includes parts of the panhandle of Idaho, where same-gender marriage has been illegal since 2006.

    Gregoire’s action added Washington to a list that included Connecticut, Iowa, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New York, Vermont, and the District of Columbia.

    On Feb. 17, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie vetoed a same-gender marriage bill one day after the state Assembly gave it the final legislative approval needed. Opponents have two years to override his veto, and Christie has said he wants to put the question to a vote of the people.

    In February, a federal appeals court overturned California’s ban on gay marriage, enacted through a 2008 ballot initiative. Diocese of Los Angeles Bishop J. Jon Bruno said at the time that he was “overjoyed when I heard that the right to marriage equality has been upheld by the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals,” while acknowledging that the decision would no doubt be appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court.

    In May, North Carolina primary election voters will have the chance to vote on a state constitutional amendment banning same-gender marriage.

    The Diocese of North Carolina’s annual convention recently went on record reaffirming Resolution A095, passed by the Episcopal Church’s General Convention in 2006, opposing any state or federal constitutional amendment that prohibits same-sex civil marriage or civil unions. The Diocese of East Carolina also noted General Convention’s previous statements and urged Episcopalians to be “an active voice against” the proposed state constitutional amendment. And in the Diocese of Western North Carolina Bishop G. Porter Taylor joined North Carolina Bishop Michael Curry, East Carolina Bishop Clifton Daniel and other faith leaders, including 33 Episcopal priests, in the state in issuing a statement opposing the amendment.

    The day before O’Malley signed the law, the state Board of Elections approved language for a petition to put a measure on the November ballot that would ask voters to nullify the law before it takes effect; opponents of the law are awaiting written confirmation from the board to begin gathering signatures, according to an AP report.

    The effort would need 55,736 signatures and the deadline for filing those signatures is June 30, according to the elections board.

    Carrie Evans, executive director of Equality Maryland and a leading advocate of the legislation, told the Baltimore Sun newspaper that she thinks “it will only take a few rounds of church signings to get it done.”

    Meanwhile, Derek McCoy, executive director of the Maryland Marriage Alliance, said in a Feb. 28 press release that the “overwhelming response” from Marylanders during the legislative debate “made it clear that the people of this state do not do not support same sex marriage.” The group says it is “the official site to obtain petitions for the referendum” for those who want to gather signatures.

    If opponents in Maryland and Washington succeed in placing measures on the November election ballot, they will join Minnesota, whose legislature voted last May to let voters decide about similar bans.

    — The Rev. Mary Frances Schjonberg is an editor/reporter for the Episcopal News Service.