The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Three years ago the Supreme Court legalized gay marriage. What that means for churches remains murky.

Jan Lawrence, left, and Lindi Lewis after they married on Nov. 16, 2016, at Foundry United Methodist Church in Washington. (Ruben Gamarra)

Tuesday marks the third anniversary of the Supreme Court ruling that established the right of gay people to marry. For Christian congregations, it also apparently tracks with a steady expansion of interest in what it means to be “welcoming” to same-sex couples.

While gay rights remain a deeply contested topic in American life, faith leaders from across the Christian spectrum say the landmark ruling from a civil institution had a profound — if not totally clear — impact on religious institutions. Civil law may not technically affect Christian congregational practice, but watchers of the issue in Protestant and Catholic circles say the Supreme Court case is leading more moderate and conservative churches to experiment with how to welcome gay couples.

What’s unknown is how far this will go.

The creators of one major database of welcoming congregations guesstimates the number of congregations actually adopting the “welcoming” label has remained flat since the years before Obergefell v. Hodges, which was handed down on June 26, 2015.

“Post-Obergefell, they’re asking: ‘How do we try to create a safe space from the pulpit so people are not spiritually traumatized by their church?’ ” said Victoria Kirby York, deputy director of advocacy and action at the National LGBTQ Task Force, which maintains a map of officially “welcoming” congregations and helps interested groups consider ways to be more gay-friendly. The map has nearly 5,000 congregations on it.

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Some gay couples say the civil ruling made a big difference in how they live in their faith communities.

Years before Obergefell, Jan Lawrence and her partner, Lindi Lewis, joined a church in the South and assembled with other new members to be formally presented to the congregation. They arrived together, clearly a couple, Lawrence recalls.

Suddenly Lawrence and Lewis found themselves separated. The organizers of the ceremony had placed other new congregants between them, apparently so that they would not appear to be what they were — a couple.

“We didn’t challenge it then. We certainly had the opportunity to. Today I would not stand for it,” said Lawrence, who married Lewis in 2016 at Foundry United Methodist Church in D.C.

Today it’s easier to find a gay-affirming congregation — including in the 13 states that had legal bans on same-sex marriage before Obergefell made those unconstitutional.

But LGBT people of faith say there is still much work to be done to extend the spirit of the law to the nation’s churches.

While American support for same-sex marriage has increased across every major religious group in the past decade, those who affiliate with a religious tradition are far less likely to approve than those who don’t, according to a Pew Research Center report.

That means gay couples who want to stand before a pastor who says, “Yes, this is sacred and this is holy and this is blessed” may have to do a great deal of homework before they find a church where that can happen — especially outside major cities, said the Rev. Rachelle Brown, interim moderator of Metropolitan Community Church, a national denomination founded 40 years ago to welcome gay Christians. “There are a lot of places where the church door is still closed.”

Among some of the country’s largest religious organizations — including Southern Baptist, Catholic and United Methodist churches, as well as much of nondenominational evangelicalism — gay marriage is forbidden. Yet even in those places, some gay couples have seen a bit of change since Obergefell.

“A number of [Catholic priests] have spoken to me about helping with marriage prep for lesbian and gay couples. I know it’s happening,” said Frank DeBernardo, executive director of New Ways Ministry, which advocates for equality for LGBT Catholics.

“Responding pastorally,” these priests are embracing these couples even though they can’t preside at their weddings, DeBernardo said. “That’s a direct response to Obergefell. … If these people weren’t able to legally marry, these pastors wouldn’t be doing it.”

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The United Methodist Church — with 7 million members in the United States, including Lawrence — will take this up next year.

Lawrence heads the Reconciling Ministries Network, which is not part of the United Methodist Church but aims to persuade UMC congregations to accept openly gay clergy and gay marriage. The issue is so divisive in the denomination that its bishops, trying to avoid a split in the church, last year called a special general conference on the subject, which is scheduled for February.

Kirby York said she thinks part of the reason the number of welcoming congregations hasn’t zoomed up since Obergefell is that multiple denominations already had allowed gay marriage, including the United Church of Christ, the Episcopal Church and the Presbyterian Church (USA). There was no “low-hanging fruit,” she says, and now the conversations are going on in more moderate and conservative parts of religion that want to see if they can be welcoming of LGBT couples without being fully affirming of their marriage vows.

PCUSA, the largest body of Presbyterians in the country, last week at the church’s biennial General Assembly in St. Louis warmly embraced gay and transgender people, with motions on the floor growing more inclusive with every proposed amendment.

“That’s been the tone since 2015,” said Alex McNeill, executive director of More Light Presbyterians, a group independent from the church that certifies congregations as gay-affirming. On June 21 of that year, the PCUSA redefined marriage in its constitution to include gay couples. Five days later the Supreme Court ruled in Obergefell.

He said since then the number of PCUSA congregations looking to proclaim themselves “More Light” has about doubled each year and is on track to triple this year.

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Long before Obergefell, the Rev. Yvette Flunder had been creating such spaces for gay couples as pastor of City of Refuge United Church of Christ in Oakland, Calif. Flunder has married dozens of couples, gay and straight, at her church, and still more as presiding bishop of the Fellowship of Affirming Churches, a coalition of primarily African American Christian leaders.

She rejoiced the day Obergefell was handed down and had traveled to Washington to address the crowd from the Supreme Court steps when the case was argued before the court, her arm around her wife. Though still happily married and happily marrying gay people to each other, Flunder has a new concern.

As gay marriages become more commonplace, so will failed gay marriages. And too few churches are talking about that, she said.

“As clergy we have to help people and counsel people when they get together. But we’re also going to have help people and counsel people when they find they did not come to the right decision.”

There are cases, she said, when “legal marriage requires legal divorce.”