Saturday, November 30, 2013

Iowa UCC Pastor Indirectly Demonstrates to Readers That Churches Cannot Be Forced to Host Gay Weddings -- Even in Marriage Equality States!

(Pastor Matthew Hunt)
I discovered a recent article in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch about a pastor who recently started a "gay chapel" in Keokuk, IA. The article tells the tale of UCC Pastor Matt Hunt of St. Paul United Church of Christ who recently started a chapel in a former music store. Keokuk, IA, isn't terribly unique as Iowa communities go, but it straddles the borders of both Missouri and Illinois. That proximity has made Pastor Hunt's new wedding chapel appealing to same-sex couples from those two states who've made the decision to travel to nearby Iowa to make their marriages legal.

The article is primarily about the growing wedding opportunities for gay and lesbian couples now that more and more states allow legalized gay marriage. Instead of making the decision to travel to Keokuk or Des Moines or Iowa City, same-sex couples from surrounding states now have the opportunity to choose potentially glitzier options such as Chicago or Minneapolis. Obviously, people will choose destinations in Iowa -- especially those of us who live here or want to get married economically and/or around friends and family. But there are currently 16 other states to choose from, as well as Washington DC plus nearby Canada plus a few American Indian reservations for tribal members. In other words, Iowa-based gay wedding merchants shouldn't be surprised if they start seeing diminishing opportunities in coming months and years.

But what grabbed my attention initially with this article was the idea that we had an active UCC pastor who was marrying same-sex couples in a store-front chapel instead of at his own UCC congregation. This is what I learned:
Hunt has not overseen same-sex weddings at his UCC church, not wanting to run afoul with church leaders. He said not all are on board with same-sex marriage. Until he has the formal approval of those who hired him about two years ago, he will officiate off site.

He is convinced there is still a market for gay couples who want a place to hold a small ceremony officiated by a pastor, but outside of a traditional church environment. He knows many churches don’t approve of gay marriage and that some gays have left their churches feeling unaccepted. “I want to create a safe space, to make church relevant,” Hunt said. “Maybe that’s all they want. It’s a way for me to reach out.”
Another article about Pastor Hunt and his new wedding chapel indicates that his current UCC church is not comfortable with same-sex marriage and that he didn't want to make waves by dealing with the subject there. It wasn't until one of his congregants put some pressure on him that Pastor Hunt began officiating at gay weddings away from his church building.

I might not agree with these decisions, but it spells out what I've known to be true since marriage equality came to Iowa nearly five years ago: Churches don't have to do gay weddings and that's legally okay. In fact, Pastor Hunt could have gladly avoided any and all same-sex wedding ceremony and he would have been legally okay to do so.

Back in 2009 and 2010, I was working part-time as a secretary at my own UCC church. It didn't happen a lot, but we received several referrals from other UCC churches who objected to same-sex weddings. They referred these couples to us because it was known that we celebrated all of Iowa's families. These other churches weren't risking anything by refusing these weddings. It was and is within their right to refuse such weddings.

Just something to mull over next time you hear that pastors will be jailed and churches will be shuttered for opposing gay marriage in marriage equality states.

No comments: