Wedded Bliss for All or None

"What we're saying is that in the commonwealth of Virginia, the laws that govern marriage are unjust and unequal," says Pastor David Ensign of Clarendon Presbyterian Church. (By Michael Robinson-chavez -- The Washington Post)
By Annie Gowen
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, November 15, 2005

Clarendon Presbyterian Church Pastor David Ensign has an alternative air about him. He wears an earring and has been known to pick up his guitar to play a few hymns during Sunday services.

But he surprised even some of Arlington's die-hard progressives Nov. 3 at the county's annual human rights awards ceremony, where his church was honored. He used the occasion to announce the church's new wedding policy:

Traditional marriages are out. "Celebrations of commitment" are in.

To protest Virginia's laws banning same-sex marriage, Ensign and the church's governing council decided recently that Clarendon Presbyterian will no longer have any weddings, and Ensign will renounce his state authority to marry couples.

Any heterosexual couple who has their union "blessed" in a "celebration ceremony" at the tiny church will have to take the extra step of being officially wed by a justice of the peace at the courthouse.

"What we're saying is that in the commonwealth of Virginia, the laws that govern marriage are unjust and unequal," said Ensign, 45, who has served as the church's pastor since 2003. He said that the matter had been bothering him for months and that he suggested the policy to the congregation's leaders because his conscience would not allow him to continue performing legal marriages on the state's behalf.

Clarendon Presbyterian's stand comes as the state's General Assembly is set to take up for the second time a constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage, similar to amendments that have been passed in 19 states. It was cleared by the General Assembly last session and will have to be approved again before a statewide referendum in 2006 or 2007.

Supporters of the amendment said that the ensign's protest would have little effect -- and that he was only hurting his congregation.

"I think it's a shame that this clergyman would seek to undermine traditional marriage, which is the foundation of American society," said state Sen. Nick Rerras (R-Norfolk), one of the legislation's sponsors. "It's a terrible message to send to our youth."

The protest is part of a recent boomlet among ministers that began in Massachusetts during the heated days of that state's same-sex marriage debate in 2003, said Harry Knox, the director of the religion and faith program at the Human Rights Campaign Foundation, the national gay advocacy organization.

"It is certainly a powerful witness on his part to take the personal risks that are involved in doing that, both in his denomination and within his local congregation," Knox said. "I applaud him for that."

But it is probably a first for Arlington, according to Ida Duncan, who has overseen the county's marriage license office for 20 years. She said she had never heard of a minister requesting to renounce the authority to perform weddings.

The church, founded in 1924, has fewer than 100 members, yet has long been a community leader on the ordination of women, rights of the disabled and support of people with AIDS. Its members have mostly applauded Ensign's action, which was approved by the church's "session," or church council, last month.

But it could cause a stink within the mainline Presbyterian community, some conservatives said.

The congregation is a member of Presbyterian Church USA, the nation's largest Presbyterian group with about 2.3 million members in 11,000 churches across the country.

Wilson Gunn, general executive of the National Capital Presbytery, which includes 110 churches in the region, said it was unlikely that the church would face punishment from the national office for its action. Openly gay ministers and those who have performed gay weddings have been the subject of sanctions in church courts, officials said.

"It's within their rights to decide what they're going to do and not going to do," Gunn said. "We're in the Jesus business, not the marriage business."

A leader of one of the largest conservative Presbyterian organizations, the Presbyterian Lay Committee, expressed dismay over the church's action.

"Frankly, it's bizarre," said the Rev. Parker Williamson, the group's chief executive. "I think it's wrong. . . . The minister has a flawed understanding of what marriage is. Marriage is a covenant between a man and a woman ordained by God."

Ashley Smith, 26, a litigation support specialist, married her husband, Andrew, 29, a law student, at the church in May in a traditional ceremony complete with nine bridesmaids carrying red roses. As a member of the church's outreach committee, she had enthusiastically supported the proposed policy, although it was not final when she wed.

"We said if the policy was implemented before we actually get married, no problem, we'll just go down to the courthouse," Smith said. "At this point, we felt like the congregation was our home and we wanted to get married there."

Ensign, who is married and a father of three, said he is counseling other couples who support his protest. However, he said he expects debate about the new policy within the church as well as the national Presbyterian community.

"I don't have patience for harassment or people who are ignorant, but serious engagement, we welcome," he said after church services Nov. 6.

"We're not seeking trouble," the pastor said. "This is a statement of who we are."

© 2005 The Washington Post Company