On Sundays, the Saint Paul-Reformation Church often holds informal soup and bread gatherings to discuss congregation business. It was at one of these meetings about two years ago that Jim McGowan, a member for more than two decades, proposed that the church stop marrying straight couples.
The church had long welcomed members of all sexual orientations—they had even bucked local Lutheran leadership and ordained a lesbian pastor. But McGowan, a straight man, nonetheless saw a subtle form of discrimination. If the church couldn't legally marry gay couples, he argued, it shouldn't marry straight ones either.
None of the 50 or so people present in the basement that Sunday stood up to contradict McGowan's proposition. So today, Saint Paul-Reformation is in the process of enacting a church ban on what he calls "the state's business" of civil unions.
If the congregation does vote to abstain from civil marriage duties, the church will still perform ceremonies for both straight and same-sex couples. The only difference will be that heterosexual couples will have to take the extra step of seeking out a judge to make their nuptials legal.
"We are looking at the function of our church in marriage ceremonies," says Anita Hill, a pastor at Saint Paul-Reformation. "Is it just to get it done in a pretty place? We're not in the wedding business; we're in the blessing business."
Still, the proposal to eliminate state-sanctioned marriage doesn't sit well with all the members. "There is a mother in our congregation who gets teary thinking that her daughter might not be able to get legally married in that chapel she sits in every Sunday," says Reverend Hill.
Minneapolis has the country's third-largest concentration of same-sex couples, according to census data, and local churches have not been shy about wading into the controversy over gay marriage. At least three Twin Cities churches have voted to bar clergy from performing civil marriages. The United Church of Christ says that dozens of its churches across the country have passed similar resolutions and that individual clergy have refused to sign marriage certificates for years.
If this is a burgeoning movement, it's an unusually quiet one, according to John Green of the Pew Forum for Religion & Public Life. "Most churches that would have these feelings would be the type to mobilize for the legalization of same-sex marriages rather than just not participate in marriage at all."
When the Massachusetts Supreme Court legalized same-sex marriage in 2003, it set off a national debate that culminated in 2004 with voters in 11 states going to the polls to decide on amendments that defined marriage strictly as a union between one man and one woman. In Minnesota, a similar amendment was defeated in the state Senate in 2005, but that did nothing to change the fact that gay couples can't legally marry.
In early 2006, with state lawmakers still wrangling over the issue, the Lyndale United Church of Christ unanimously voted to pass a resolution instructing its clergy to stop signing marriage certificates on church grounds. Lyndale's pastor, Reverend Don Portwood, took it a step further, vowing not to sign marriage certificates anywhere. "When a law is not morally right, we are not going to follow it," he says, invoking the language of the Civil Rights Movement.
Just weeks later, Mayflower Church passed a similar measure. The congregation of 650 voted overwhelmingly in favor of the proposal. "The churches of the Twin Cities are definitely at the forefront of a movement," says Rev. Sarah Campbell. "Our partnership with the state becomes impossible when we can't agree on a basic definition of marriage."
First Congregational Church, also of Minneapolis, became the third church to join the protest when it approved a ban on legal marriage in early 2007. David Anger, who had his union with longtime partner Jim Broberg blessed there in 1991, says the time has come to force the issue. "There can't be a gay door and a straight door," he argues.
A recent report by a Minnesota campaign called Project 515 has identified hundreds of state statutes that benefit legally married couples but exclude same-sex partners. One dictates that the spouse of a patient is the first person consulted if a patient can't consent to treatment. Another allows married couples to be included in joint health or accident insurance policies. And if a person in a straight marriage is murdered, the spouse is entitled to restitution—not so for gay couples. "This is a human rights issue," argues Project 515 spokeswoman Marie Davis.
Addressing the issue, however, is more difficult than documenting it. At Mayflower, there were concerns over alienating straight couples, and the congregation considered having a judge come in to sign the legal documents. At First Congregational, it was suggested that maybe there could be a spot in the chapel designated for the signing.
Ultimately, the three churches that passed the ban decided against making any concessions. "Seventy-five dollars for a judge and 30 minutes plus parking is such a small inconvenience compared to what same-sex couples experience," says Lyndale's Portwood.
Even some of those in favor of gay rights wonder if refusing to marry straight couples is the best way to make the point. At Mayflower, Jim Anderson was one of two votes against the resolution. "I have a hard time letting go of traditions," he says. "For generations, where do you get married? You go to a church; it's an American tradition. It feels weird to get married to the same person twice in three days. Which one is the real wedding?"
Yet Mayflower's Campbell still sees a place for tradition at her church. In some ways, jettisoning the legal portion of the marriage has only reinforced the spiritual aspect, she says. "As a congregation, we started coming back to the importance of marriage as an institution—to the understanding of the importance of having a communal ritual. In some ways, we got more conservative."