Tuesday, May 4, 2004

Church finds no gay wedding ban

Presbyterian court ruling supports minister

By Denise Smith Amos
The Cincinnati Enquirer

A Presbyterian minister who married same-sex couples in his church has won a major church court decision which, he said, ultimately will allow Presbyterian Church USA ministers to perform same-sex weddings without fear of discipline.

Rev. Stephen Van Kuiken, now a leader of a congregation called The Gathering, flies a rainbow flag outside his home, a symbol of inclusion and diversity.
(Michael E. Keating photo)
The Rev. Stephen Van Kuiken, who a year ago was rebuked and kicked out of the denomination for holding gay weddings at Mount Auburn Presbyterian, learned Monday that he won an appeal of his conviction.

The decision says the constitution of the 2.5-million-member Presbyterian Church (USA), the Book of Order, does not specifically bar ministers from marrying gay couples, nor does it call for disciplining pastors who do.

"A new era has dawned in the Presbyterian Church, a day for which we have waited and hoped," Van Kuiken said.

"We are making room at the table of Christ both for our gay brothers and lesbian sisters as well as for those with progressive Christian convictions. This is truly good news for the church."

Van Kuiken married same-sex couples at Mount Auburn Presbyterian over his three years at the church, which for more than 10 years has adopted rules that welcome gay members and leaders.

The decision by the judicial commission of the Synod of the Covenant, which oversees Presbyterian churches in Ohio, Michigan, and parts of Kentucky and Indiana, was split 6-4. It probably will be overturned on appeal to the highest Presbyterian Church court, said the Rev. Tom Sweets, pastor of the 800-member Madeira-Silverwood Presbyterian Church, which brought the complaint against Van Kuiken.

"Each vote was pretty narrowly divided. I don't think it will be ultimately upheld," Sweets said. "The decision was made on wordsmithing; it's Bill Clinton's 'whatever the definition of "is" is.'"

In June, the denomination's General Assembly is expected to take up gay rights.

The Presbyterian Church USA defines marriage as being between a man and a woman. But it has allowed same-sex unions so long as ministers don't call them weddings.

Van Kuiken said the synod's decision eliminates such "word games" for progressive Presbyterian churches.

Elders at Van Kuiken's former church were more cautious. They and Van Kuiken parted ways last year in part because they thought his pursuit of gay rights might endanger gay members' status.

"What's been unfortunate about all this is, we were divided on tactics," said Eric Burgmann, an elder at the church. "We had a difference of opinion on how we should proceed, but we're both still heading down the same path."

On Monday the elders issued a statement "celebrating" the ruling because it "avoids an outright prohibition" on same-sex marriage.

The topic of gay marriage has been debated by other denominations in recent years. While the Roman Catholic Church will not perform same-sex marriages, others, like the United Church of Christ and Reform Judaism, leave the decision to congregations and clergy.

This is the second decision by the synod in Van Kuiken's favor. In February, the commission restored Van Kuiken's status as a minister.

Meanwhile, some Presbyterian churches are staying out of the battle.

George Hupp, pastor of Montgomery Presbyterian Church, said his church, which doesn't perform same-sex unions, is keeping a distance from the issue.

"We're not disrupted by it at this point and we don't want to be," he said. "We try not to become embattled and bittered."

Van Kuiken will not be returning to Mount Auburn Presbyterian. A separation agreement he signed last year paid him a year's salary and lets the church find a new pastor.

About 50 people left Mount Auburn and have formed a worship community they call the Gathering, which meets Sunday mornings at the former St. George church in Clifton.

"I am elated, to put it mildly," said Brandon Wiers, 69, of Forest Park, who attends the Gathering. "I'm as happy as a clam. It is one of the most significant turning points in the history of the Presbyterian denomination."

Even before the synod's decision, the Presbytery of Cincinnati told Van Kuiken he must choose between serving at the Gathering or returning to minister at a Presbyterian church, he said.

Van Kuiken said he decided to lead that group and leave the Presbyterian Church.

"They offered me a 'Sophie's Choice,'" he said. "I'm not going to turn my back on those folks. ... I'm going to stick with them like they stuck with me."

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, 2004: 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 heard Van Kuiken's appeal of his guilty verdict for performing same-sex marriages.

• April 30: The permanent judicial commission of the synod rules that ministers can't be disciplined for performing same-sex marriages, which aren't explicity outlawed. The decision could be appealed to the General Assembly's ecclesiastical court.


Karen Vance contributed to this report. E-mail damos@enquirer.com

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