Wednesday, May 19, 2004

Church dismisses gay marriage ruling's appeal

The Associated Press

The highest court of the Presbyterian Church (USA) has dismissed an appeal of a lower church court's ruling that a Cincinnati minister did not violate the denomination's law by marrying same-sex couples.

The effect of Tuesday's dismissal on future cases in the church was not immediately clear.

The Permanent Judicial Commission of the General Assembly dismissed the appeal by the Cincinnati Presbytery, a cluster of Presbyterian churches that had challenged the ruling of a lower church court based in Maumee in northwest Ohio.

That court ruled two weeks ago that church law does not prohibit Presbyterian ministers from marrying same sex-couples.

The highest court ruled Tuesday that the Rev. Stephen Van Kuiken's resignation as a minister and church member put him outside church jurisdiction.

"There is no way that the court could hear a case involving someone who is no longer a Presbyterian," said Laurie Griffith, judicial process manager at Presbyterian headquarters in Louisville.

Calls seeking comment from the Cincinnati Presbytery were not returned Tuesday night.

Van Kuiken resigned shortly after the Maumee court that oversees Presbyterian churches in Ohio and Michigan issued the decision reversing his 2003 conviction and rebuke by a Cincinnati church court.

Van Kuiken was pastor of the Mount Auburn Presbyterian Church when he became the first Presbyterian minister to be tried on accusations of marrying same-sex couples.

After the conviction, the Presbytery's voting body removed him as a minister for marrying at least two more same-sex couples. The Maumee court reinstated him in February, saying he couldn't be ousted while he was appealing the conviction.

The constitution of the 2.5 million-member denomination defines marriage as a covenant between a man and a woman. The Maumee court said an earlier ruling by the church's highest court, that ministers may bless same-sex unions but cannot marry those couples, did not include an outright prohibition against such marriages.

Opinion was divided on the effects of Tuesday's dismissal.

Griffith said the dismissal leaves the Maumee ruling with no effect beyond the parties involved in the Van Kuiken case.

Van Kuiken disagreed and believes the ruling sets a precedent.

"It's like any other appeals court decision, in that it stands unless it's overruled by a higher court," he said.

Paul R. Jensen, a conservative Presbyterian attorney from Laguna Beach, Calif., who filed the disciplinary action that led to Van Kuiken's rebuke, said he had not seen the ruling.

"If the appeal was just dismissed and the court didn't vacate the Maumee ruling, then it would be the law of the Ohio and Michigan region until the highest court says otherwise," he said.

A copy of the latest ruling was not available Tuesday night.

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