By Denise Smith Amos
The Cincinnati Enquirer
MOUNT AUBURN - A Presbyterian judicial body in Ohio this week will hear Stephen Van Kuiken's challenge to a ruling that he violated church laws by conducting same-sex weddings at his Cincinnati church.
In the year since he was found guilty, Van Kuiken, 45, of Anderson Township has lost his church, his title and his job. Though a regional ecclesiastical court restored his status as a Presbyterian minister in February, Van Kuiken's life is still in limbo.
But his cause gains an important airing this week. On Thursday, a Presbyterian synod's judicial commission - the church's second-highest court - will hear Van Kuiken's case in Maumee, Ohio.
Its decision could further divide the mainline Protestant denomination along the issue of gay rights, testing the limits of the authority of the Presbyterian constitution, while giving Van Kuiken a national forum to make the case that gays and lesbians should be allowed to marry.
The synod is a regional governing body of presbyteries, which are clusters of Presbyterian churches. The synod over Ohio and Michigan churches is hearing Van Kuiken's case.
"This gets to the heart of the (church) constitution," Van Kuiken said. "It really could establish a precedent. It's very significant. This is the first instance where (the gay marriage prohibition) is really being challenged in the court system."
The challenge comes just before the top governing body of the 2.5-million member Presbyterian Church (USA) convenes its General Assembly in Richmond, Va., in June.
Among the items on the expected agenda are proposals to restrict the definition of families to exclude same-sex couples, as well as proposals to allow non-celibate homosexuals to be ministers in the church, currently forbidden by church law.
Meanwhile, the legal definition of marriage is also under question nationwide.
On May 17, Massachusetts is expected to begin legally recognizing marriages of same-sex couples, because a state Supreme Court ruled that anything less than equal marital rights for homosexuals violates the state constitution.
To stave off similar court challenges, 38 states, including Ohio and Kentucky, have laws limiting marriage to a man and a woman.
The Presbyterian Church (USA) has debated same-sex marriage and gay ordination for years.
Its constitution, The Book of Order, explicitly defines marriage as a covenant between a man and a woman. But churches can perform holy unions that bless same-sex relationships, as long as they aren't deemed weddings.
The national church also allows married people and "chaste" singles to lead churches, effectively barring ordination of non-celibate gays.
The Mount Auburn church has been a leader among hundreds of Presbyterian congregations nationwide that flout or challenge those restrictions.
About a third of the 136-year-old church's 280 members are gay, church leaders say, and it has had many gay church leaders.
The church board of elders, called its session, chose Van Kuiken as pastor more than four years ago to continue reform efforts.
Jack B. Harrison, a former member who is gay, said he once asked Van Kuiken if he was "prepared to put his job on the line" for gay rights.
"As history bore out, it was a risk he was willing to take," said Harrison, an attorney who lives downtown.
In April 2003, the Presbytery of Cincinnati found Van Kuiken guilty after he performed a same-sex wedding. It issued its mildest punishment, a rebuke.
The following month, Van Kuiken conducted another same-sex wedding and notified presbytery officials. The group voted overwhelmingly in June to strip him of his membership and ordination.
The synod in February reversed the presbytery's decision, saying procedures weren't followed and Van Kuiken was denied due process.
But his separation from Mount Auburn was permanent. He and the church reached an agreement to separate, and he received a year's salary and benefits.
Harrison, who married his partner with Van Kuiken's help in 2000, said his pastor's departure has pushed him away from the church he'd attended for 10 years.
"This whole experience has soured me on religion," he said. "At least for the time being, I've pulled way back."
The Mount Auburn church still supports its gay members, said Bucky Ignatius, a church elder who is straight.
The church recently changed its wedding policies to follow church law without discriminating against homosexuals.
It will call all of its weddings "commitment services," Ignatius said, and the minister will omit the line, "I now pronounce you husband and wife."
That appears to be enough. The complaint against the church was dropped.
Van Kuiken still faces his challenge. Opponents and supporters say it's impossible to tell how the synod will act.
The Rev. Tom Sweets, pastor of the Madeira-Silverwood Presbyterian Church, which brought the original complaint against Van Kuiken, said he's not confident the synod will uphold the church's rules.
After all, the synod reinstated Van Kuiken "after we kicked him out by a very wide vote," he said. "Our denomination remains in a constitutional crisis because we have cases where the leadership won't enforce the law."
On the other hand, Ignatius said, it's a long shot that the synod would rule in Van Kuiken's favor.
"It would be a real sign that the synod has great questions about the moral authority of same-sex prohibitions in the Book of Order," Ignatius said.
Either way, the Rev. Thomas York, pastor of Knox Presbyterian in Hyde Park, said this case tests whether pastors and elders will be allowed to "provide ministry as one sees fit," without too heavy a hand from national church leadership.
For his part, Van Kuiken says he will not deny that he performed weddings for gay couples, even after his rebuke. He contends that the church law is unjust and so it should be disobeyed.
"Martin Luther King said that if you're going to disobey an unjust law you have to do it openly, lovingly and with a willingness to accept the penalty," Van Kuiken said.
Van Kuiken's penalty? He no longer leads a church. The married father of two is unemployed.
He attends a small, newly formed congregation of about 50 former members of Mount Auburn Presbyterian that meets Sundays at the old St. George church in Clifton. But he doesn't preach.
To lead another Presbyterian congregation, Van Kuiken would have to get permission from the Cincinnati Presbytery.
"I don't think they're in the mood," he said.
Van Kuiken timeline
2002: The Presbyterian General Assembly's highest court rules that Presbyterian ministers and churches can hold ceremonies blessing same-sex couples but cannot deem them marriages. The decision upholds the definition of marriage as a covenant between a man and woman, written in the denomination's Book of Order.
April 2003: The Presbytery of Cincinnati, the local body over 83 Greater Cincinnati churches, finds Rev. Stephen Van Kuiken guilty of "marrying" same-sex couples. It rebukes him, its mildest form of punishment. He later appeals to the regional synod in Maumee, Ohio.
May 2003: Van Kuiken officiates at a marriage of another same-sex couple.
June 2003: The Cincinnati presbytery strips Van Kuiken of membership and status as a Presbyterian USA minister. He appeals to the synod, but agrees to leave the Mount Auburn Presbyterian Church.
Feb. 6: The synod reinstates Van Kuiken's ordination and membership in the denomination, saying the Cincinnati Presbytery didn't follow proper procedures and denied him due process.
April 29: The synod will hear Van Kuiken's appeal of his guilty verdict for performing same-sex marriages. The decision could still be appealed to the General Assembly's ecclesiastical court.
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