Freedom of conscience – for everyone

Are the actions proposed to the 221st General Assembly regarding marriage a step toward requiring all teaching elders to perform marriages of same gender couples?

No.   To the contrary, the actions proposed are founded in our core Presbyterian affirmation that “God alone is Lord of the conscience” (F-3.0101) – that both those who understand Scripture to call them to participate in same gender marriages, and those who understand Scripture to forbid them from doing so, should be free to follow their consciences with respect to the interpretation of Scripture.  Indeed, the decision of a teaching elder to perform a wedding for any couple requires the teaching elder to consider both whether his or her freedom of conscience allows him or her to participate in that service (F-3.0101 and G-2.0105) and whether his or her pastoral judgment deems the marriage unwise (W-4.9002b).

The current authoritative interpretation prevents a teaching elder who concludes that a same gender marriage is both consistent with scripture and wise nonetheless from participating in that service of worship.  Changing such a rule would not compel any teaching elder to conclude that such a marriage would be both consistent with scripture and wise, but for those teaching elders who in the faithful exercise of their office found such a marriage to be both, it would restore to them the ability to follow their conscience without fear of penalty.



  1. Jim Caraher says:

    I hope the Authoritative Interpretation promoted by Covenant Network passes at the General Assembly in June and that pastors and churches will be freed to serve gay couples. However all of these assurances by progressives that gay marriage in the PC(USA) will always remain a matter of church and pastoral discretion are completely unsupported by precedents in both ecclesiastical and secular spheres. Early advocates of women’s ordination in the PC(USA) offered the same assurances but over time women’s ordination has evolved from discretion to coercion. Similarly in the early years of the gay rights movement after Stonewall, opponents of gay rights argued that the inevitable outcome of a successful gay rights movement would be gay marriage. Gay rights proponents called that a straw man argument, were adamant that the sole objective of their movement was civil rights such as non-discrimination in employment, hospital visitation etc. and they promised that marriage was perfectly safe as a heterosexual institution. We all see how that turned out. Now that gay marriage is becoming common, gay couples are suing wedding photographers and bakers of wedding cakes who personally oppose gay marriage and don’t want to participate. This has prompted prominent gay author Andrew Sullivan to chastise his fellow gays for being “sore winners” and he suggests that civil society functions best in the absence of such coercion. I support full inclusion of women and gays in church leadership and marriage equality but liberalism has always had an ugly underbelly of coercion and these assurances by PC(USA) progressives that gay marriage in their denomination will never evolve into anything other than pastoral discretion are contradicted by all applicable precedents.

  2. Tim Cahn says:

    Like Mr. Caraher, I too hope that the proposed AI passes the General Assembly. It will be good medicine for the PCUSA, its members and officers. Though Mr. Caraher appears to personally support the freedom of pastors to perform same gender marriages, he references fear-based arguments that are raised from time to time by persons seeking to undermine equality. Fortunately, such arguments are red herrings and wholly without merit.
    There is nothing in secular or ecclesiastical precedent to justify the concern that, if we support freedom of conscience to marry same-gender couples now, pastors one day will be forced, by either the State or the church, to officiate weddings against the pastors’ will and conscience. To the contrary, all the precedent supports freedom of conscience when it comes to marriage.
    First, in the secular realm, many states’ marriage laws expressly preserve religious liberty protections for ministers, including states that now recognize same-gender marriage rights. Connecticut’s law, for example, is typical of many when it provides that “No member of the clergy authorized to join persons in marriage … shall be required to solemnize any marriage in violation of his or her right to the free exercise of religion.” But even without such express articulation by the states, the U.S. Supreme Court has made clear, as recently as in 2012 in the Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church and School v. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission case, that a discrimination law cannot trump the free exercise clause of the First Amendment when a government tries to apply that law to the work of ministers.
    That LGBT advocates have challenged the discriminatory practices of public businesses (such as wedding cake preparers) who refused to serve LGBT persons in no way undermines protections for freedom of conscience in religious matters. Such businesses are places of public accommodations, unlike churches, and are required to abide by non-discrimination laws if they want the privilege of doing business with the public. State law should no more sanction a public wedding business to practice discrimination than permit a restaurant or hotel to refuse LGBT patrons, but, regardless, enforcing non-discrimination in the public arena has nothing to do with an unwarranted fear of forcing marriage ceremonies on unwilling pastors.
    Second, in the sphere of church polity, no one can dispute that the PCUSA has long recognized freedom of conscience as a bedrock principle of its theology and polity. It will not be lightly undermined, and certainly not when it comes to a teaching elder’s exercise of discretion concerning whom to marry. The Directory for Worship expressly preserves a teaching elder’s judgment as to whether a marriage is “unwise” before agreeing to perform a marriage service, and nothing in the precedents of the General Assembly Permanent Judicial Commission remotely suggests that a pastor’s decision concerning whom to marry is one of those areas where conscience may be over-ridden.
    For his part, Mr. Caraher points to no actual church or state precedents to back up the alleged fears of those who resist marriage equality. He casually invokes the history of women’s ordination but even there respect for conscience was preserved by the General Assembly PJC’s most recent authoritative interpretation on the issue. See Simmons v. Pby of Suwannee, Rem. Case No. 197-4 (ordination of minister affirmed despite his view that women should not be ordained). Because marriage is far less central to our polity than the practice of ordination, it is even less likely that a pastor’s conscience to decide whether or not to marry a particular couple will be over-ridden by some future PCUSA decision.
    Finally, I take issue with Mr. Caraher’s characterization of early LGBT advocates as preferring to focus on “civil rights” and “promis[ing] that marriage was perfectly safe as a heterosexual institution.” To the contrary, for decades LGBT advocates have been pressing marriage equality precisely because civil marriage is about “civil rights” – over 1000 of them in fact. In 1989, Andrew Sullivan, the early LGBT advocate Mr. Caraher mentions, caused a storm when he authored an opinion piece in the New Republic entitled, “A Conservative Case for Gay Marriage.” Sullivan would find it strange indeed that his name might be invoked to discourage a church from allowing pastors the freedom of conscience to officiate same gender weddings.
    Speculation about the future aside, right now teaching elders are being coerced to discriminate against LGBT couples who want to marry. Should we allow such coercion against conscience to continue based on some wholly unfounded fear that future pastors may be coerced in a different direction? Instead of focusing on conjecture that goes beyond speculation into the implausible, discussion of the proposals coming before this summer’s General Assembly should focus on the real issue: do the actual proposals being considered allow us to respect more deeply than we do now the right of conscience that is at the core of who we are as Presbyterians.

  3. Jim Caraher says:

    Mr. Cahn and I share the hope that the GA will adopt the Covenant Network’s AI next month and that’s more important than quibbling over what the long term impact will be on the PC(USA). The Covenant Network’s piece which prompted this conversation contends that the only consequence of the AI will be that pastors and churches will be able to serve gay couples without fear of sanction. However the PC(USA) folks I interact with agree that the decline which has shrunk the PC(USA) by more than 50% to its current 1.9 million members will continue at an accelerated rate to somewhere around 1.0 million before there is any prospect of leveling off. At that point the PC(USA) will be a small, exclusively progressive church and there won’t be any churches who will call a pastor unwilling to perform gay weddings. So the Covenant Network’s rosey assurances that a successful AI will usher in a new era of peaceful coexistence among the PC(USA)’s irreconcilable factions seem quite improbable.

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