Presbyterian church's high court to hear arguments on gay cases

Tribunal meets on issues involving ordination, unions of homosexuals

May 19, 2000|By John Rivera | John Rivera,SUN STAFF

The highest appeals court in the 2.6-million member Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) will convene today at a hotel near Baltimore to hear arguments in three high-profile cases involving the participation of homosexuals in the denomination.

The three cases being heard by the Permanent Judicial Commission, the Presbyterian equivalent of the Supreme Court, involve issues that inflame passions nationwide: the validity of "holy union" ceremonies between same-sex couples; a congregation's right to dissent from the denomination's policy toward homosexual members; and a congregation's right to dissent from the policy prohibiting noncelibate homosexuals from serving as church officers.

These cases involving churches in New York, New Jersey and Vermont preview issues that will likely dominate debate during the Presbyterian General Assembly next month in Long Beach, Calif., the annual meeting that determines church policy.

Much of the recent debate among Presbyterians has revolved around Amendment B, a 1997 addition to the Book of Order, the denomination's constitution. It requires church officers, including ministers, deacons and elders, to be married to someone of the opposite sex or to remain celibate.

William Giles, executive coordinator of the Presbyterian Coalition, a conservative group that opposes gay marriage and ordination, says conservatives "will see anything less than the PJC upholding the constitution as it now reads as being an alarming decision, and one which could affect the unity and the peace of the church - and could affect it in a radical way."

"I'm not talking schism, but that is always a possibility," Giles said. "We Presbyterians will have to make decisions, not only as a denomination, but as individuals.

"If the PJC does not uphold the constitution as it now reads, my hunch is there will be a lot of individual Presbyterians who will move away from the church and into other denominations."

Scott Anderson, co-moderator of More Light Presbyterians, a nationwide network of congregations (including five Baltimore-area churches) that welcome gays and lesbians as members, sees these cases as less crucial.

"I think they're important, but not end-all and be-all decisions," said Anderson, a Sacramento pastor and gay rights advocate. "We see this as a long-term dialogue in the life of the denomination, and this is one moment of many that will take place."

The Permanent Judicial Commission, meeting at the Embassy Suites BWI, will hear five cases, three of them dealing with gay issues, all appeals of decisions made by the Synod of the Northeast:

Christ Church in Burlington, Vt., passed a resolution saying it refused to comply with Amendment B. The Synod's court ruled the presbytery, the equivalent of a diocese, must bring the church into compliance. The presbytery appealed the Synod's decision.

The Hudson River Presbytery allows its ministers to perform holy union ceremonies for gay and lesbian couples, a practice not specifically prohibited in the Presbyterian constitution. That practice was upheld by the Synod's court. A group of seven ministers and eight congregations has appealed.

The West Jersey Presbytery approved a noncelibate gay man as a candidate for ordination as a minister. The Book of Order prohibits noncelibate gays from ordination, but says nothing about candidates. The Synod's court upheld the Presbytery's action, and a group of 11 ministers and six churches has appealed.

The 16-member panel hearing today's arguments will deliberate over the weekend and notify the parties of its decisions next week.

Soulforce, an ecumenical group dedicated to securing equal rights for gays and lesbians in churches, and which organized the United Methodist protest, has promised more civil disobedience when the Presbyterians convene.

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