Rabbi Elizabeth Bolton was always vexed by the notion that despite the country's traditional separation of church and state, Maryland gave her - a religious leader - the power to change people's legal status by signing their marriage licenses. At the same time, the Reconstructionist rabbi from Baltimore was troubled by the state's laws prohibiting same-sex marriage.
Finally, after contending with her conflicted feelings for years, she decided she had had enough: She told couples she would happily conduct religious wedding ceremonies, but to find someone else to sign their civil documents.
The legalization of same-sex marriage in 2004 in Massachusetts - the only state where such unions are legal - was the tipping point for her. "The incongruity of that not being possible here was heightened. It was the last straw. I finally was able to say with clarity: `I really cannot do this anymore,'" said Bolton, the rabbi at Congregation Beit Tikvah.
Bolton has joined a small but growing band of clergy who have decided that they won't sign any marriage licenses as agents of the state until it allows gays and lesbians to marry. Some rabbis and ministers in states including Virginia, Minnesota, Michigan and Connecticut have told their congregants that when it comes to weddings they are in the business of religious ceremonies - only - and they have redirected couples to the local courthouse for the paperwork.
"There's sort of a steady drip, drip, drip of people starting to do this," said the Rev. Donald Stroud, minister of outreach and reconciliation at That All May Freely Serve Baltimore, an organization that advocates for the full inclusion of gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people in the Presbyterian Church.
"I think it does raise people's consciousness - that's one element. But I think a lot of ministers who do this do this first because their conscience compels them," said Stroud. The Presbyterian Church does not sanction same-sex marriage, but it also does not compel pastors to sign licenses, he said. And like some of his colleagues, he would decline to do so if the issue arose because of what he sees as the state's discriminatory laws..
Maryland's highest court last year upheld a law that defines marriage as between a woman and a man, and efforts have not advanced in the General Assembly to create a legal relationship for gay and lesbian couples that confers many of the same rights granted to married couples.
In many cases, congregants have applauded the stances of their pastors and rabbis - most are already fully aware of their religious leaders' political affinities - or participated in the decision to implement a no-sign policy.
Elana Richman, a member of Congregation Beit Tikvah who now lives in Pennsylvania, said she fully supported Bolton's decision. "People need to take a stand against unjust laws, and it's a good way to do it," she said.
Richman had a civil ceremony at a courthouse - which she described as pleasant if unremarkable - but didn't consider herself married until the ceremony before Rabbi Bolton, family and friends in late 2005.
The Rev. David Ensign, pastor of Clarendon Presbyterian Church in Arlington, Va., was surprised by the flurry of media attention he received in 2005 when the ruling body of his small church unanimously passed a policy - at his recommendation - declaring that the pastor would not sign marriage documents as long as the legal rights were available only to straight couples. Ensign said did not hear a negative peep - once the policy was clearly explained - and unexpectedly, church membership grew after word of the church's position got out.
"A lot of people were interested in what we were doing. They were looking for a place that shared those commitments to justice and commitments to being an open and welcoming and progressive Christian community," he said.
In some ways, separating the legal elements of marriage has made religious wedding services more meaningful, Ensign said.
"There certainly is an intentional political statement on the part of the church," he said. "But an equal part of it has been to say, `Let's reclaim what is essential about marriage and set aside the questions that are properly the domain of the state and focus in on the ones that are the domain of the faith community.' ... It's allowed us to have some rich and deep conversations with couples about their faith lives."
Of course, many faiths, such as the Roman Catholic Church, don't support same-sex marriage or civil unions. And clergy in only a handful of denominations - including Unitarian Universalist, Presbyterian and United Church of Christ leaders - have taken this step. They are not always supported by their peers.