As numerous judicial rulings make it clearer each day that South Carolina’s Gov. Nikki Haley and Attorney General Wilson are running out of courts in their fight to deny gays the right to get married, conversations – some anguished – are continuing about the subject in churches, workplaces and families.
In South Carolina, four same-sex-related marriage lawsuits are now percolating in federal court. By as early as this week, U.S. Judge Richard Gergel of Charleston could rule that Haley’s and Wilson’s stands are unconstitutional in a Charleston County case.
If and when that happens, Haley and Wilson will no doubt appeal to the 4th Circuit Court of Appeals, which has already overturned a Virginia ban on same-sex marriage. The U.S. Supreme Court has declined to take up the 4th Circuit’s same-sex marriage decision. Cases decided in the 4th Circuit are precedent for South Carolina.
Meanwhile, the idea of such unions is gaining traction across society. From Pope Francis calling upon Catholics to move away from condemning gays and be more open toward unconventional unions, to Apple CEO Tim Cook revealing he is gay, age-old ways of categorizing people are changing.
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Last week, The State newspaper talked with five Midlands community and religious leaders about their views and the conversations taking place in their respective institutions. Here’s what they’re thinking:
THE METHODIST MINISTER
The Rev. Michael Guffee, pastor of the Shandon Methodist Church, says the topic is a sensitive one in his 2,800-member church, whose local history dates to 1909.
The United Methodist Church, a worldwide denomination of which Shandon is a member, teaches that while homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching, all persons are of sacred worth and in need of the ministry of the church. Methodist ministers are not allowed to perform same-sex marriage or bless same-sex unions.
But the subject is not so sensitive that Shandon church members didn’t want to talk about it. So last week, during Sunday School hour, Guffee moderated a discussion that drew some 125 church members.
“We believe that same-sex marriage is probably going to be legalized, and this would give our people a chance to hear some dialogue, with a pro and a con person speaking on this,” said Guffee, 64, a pastor for 42 years.
One person advocated the position that the church ought to recognize same-sex marriage. The other espoused the traditional Biblical and family views held by mainstream Christian denominations. Guffee discussed the official Methodist view.
“It was well received. We didn’t try to tell anyone what they should believe or how they should think – we just tried to expose them to different viewpoints. The people who talked to me expressed appreciation we had that dialogue.”
The person who had the more traditional, conservative viewpoint based his positions on scripture, particularly how the Bible – in the Old and New Testaments – always speaks of marriage being between a man and a woman, Guffee said. The other spoke from a personal perspective, having a member of his family being homosexual and having a partner and how that family member made it clear that, “‘This is how I was born, this is not what I chose. This is who I am, and I don’t have a choice but to be who I am,’” Guffee said.
In official Methodist circles, “there is a lot of dialogue” these days on the topic, Guffee said.
Asked for his personal opinion, Guffee said, “Well, I’m a Methodist minister, so I am going to abide by the United Methodist Book of Discipline – I’m not going to perform same-sex unions.”
Yet, he said, “I find myself torn. A lot of people who are homosexual tell me they are born that way, and I believe them.
“But I also have a lot of respect for what the Scripture says. What I do believe, and I try to practice, is that when I have homosexuals in churches I serve, I treat them like anyone else. And I try to not make their sexuality an issue. We have got to love one another. It’s very clear that wherever you are on this issue, we have got to love one another, and accept one another.”
Although Methodism teaches that homosexuality is incompatible with Christianity, Guffee doesn’t find that a cause for excluding them from his congregation. “We don’t put them in a pocket or a small group. I’ve tried to give them a place. Some have served in the music ministry, some have served as church officers. I’ve tried not to exclude them at all.”
“I struggle with the issue,” Guffee said. “I think a lot of people do.”
THE WORD OF GOD MINISTER
The Rev. Eric Davis, senior pastor of the 4,000-plus congregation Word of God Church and Ministries on Broad River Road, is aware of the wave of litigation sweeping the land that has resulted in the legal approval of same-sex marriages in a number of states.
Those court decisions hold no sway in his church, he has said in recent sermons and in an interview with The State.
The Bible is very clear – not only that men and women belong together in marriage, but that homosexuality along with all sexual immorality is a sin – said Davis, 46, who is also presiding bishop of the Word of God Church International.
“The scripture says that no unrepentant sinner will inherit the Kingdom of God. This may not be politically correct, but it’s still the truth of God’s word.”
A major difference between homosexuality and other sins, Davis said, is its assertion that it is not sin. “You don’t see the person who is an adulterer saying, ‘Accept me as I am.’”
Davis stressed, “This is not an issue of love – love can disagree. I love the person, but I don’t love the sin they commit.”
“But if you disagree with homosexuals saying, ‘Accept me as I am,’ they call you a bigot. No other sin fires back at you and calls you a bigot and tries to make you feel that your character is demeaned as a result of your not believing in something that they choose to do.” Davis said. “This is the one sin that argues with God, the church and the government for acceptance.”
Asked whether homosexuals are born that way, Davis said, “I think it is a choice, but if you want to make the argument that they are born that way, the whole premise of salvation is that you are born again, and that any man who is born again is a new creature. The spiritual rebirth delivers all from natural birth sins.”
Moreover, Davis said, homosexuals do not have children from their unions. “What they do is a self-absorbed act because there can be no fruit.”
As for the possibility the U.S. Supreme Court may someday rule that same-sex marriages are legal, that court has in the past ruled that some sins were legal, such as slavery in the pre-Civil War days, Davis said.
“Because the government does something doesn’t make it right. We abide by the law of God,” Davis said. “We’ll continue to preach and teach the law of God.”
In the future, he said, the government may someday try to require churches to marry couples of the same sex. “This may be the start of a long battle between the body of Christ – the Christian community –and the homosexual community.”
“You don’t have to redefine marriage to give people civil union status,” Davis said. “Marriage is the God-designed relationship between man and woman. But what they are trying to do is totally redefine marriage. We are not saying that as citizens, they shouldn’t have various rights – but they should not have the label of marriage.”
To sum up, Davis said, “I don’t condone the lifestyle – in any way. But I am not opposed in general to American citizens getting access to benefits that should belong to every citizen regardless of their lifestyle, even though we believe what they are doing is a sin.”
Davis said some gay people attend his church. “The difference is, the ones who attend want to be delivered from the lifestyle. They may struggle with it, but they want to be delivered.”
“The church’s job is to offer God’s love and reconciliation to sinners, which means that God will receive and accept sinners who acknowledge that they – not God – were wrong,” Davis said.
THE SHERIFF OF ONE OF SC’S LARGEST COUNTIES
Richland County Sheriff Leon Lott said that when he became sheriff in 1997, anyone wanting to become a deputy had to pass a lie detector test in which applicants were asked if they were homosexual.
“If you were, you couldn’t get hired, much less get married,” said Lott, 61, whose department has nearly 900-plus deputies and civilian employees.
Lott said his department now employs gay people. If South Carolina’s same sex marriage ban is overturned, Lott said, he has no doubt that he will have same-sex marriages in his department.
His department’s culture is one of acceptance, he said. “Gays are treated as law enforcement officers, personally and professionally, and they do a great job, and no one has had any problems with them. This is not something new to us.
“Our deputies don’t care if someone’s gay – all they want to know is if you can shoot and fight if need be and back me up.”
“They are some of the best cops that we’ve got,” Lott said. “They’ve been shot at, they’ve had to use deadly force.”
His officers have to treat everyone in the community the same way, Lott said. “We go out of our way to do that. You have to have an attitude of acceptance to do that – to the public and amongst ourselves. I have never had an issue with gays having sex or doing something inappropriate on duty, but I have that almost monthly with straight male cops.”
“Basically, gays here are looked at as being a cop – not a gay cop, not a straight cop, but a cop. We judge them on how they are doing their job.”
PALMETTO FAMILY’S CEO
Oran Smith, 51, president and CEO of the Columbia-based Palmetto Family, a Christian-values policy research and communications group, is hoping that a South Carolina federal judge will uphold the state’s marriage laws.
“South Carolina still has not had its day in court at the district level,” Smith said, noting that U.S. District Court Judge Michelle Childs of Columbia has three same-sex marriage lawsuits before her that have yet to be ruled on, and Judge Gergel of Charleston has one. (The latest is a lawsuit filed Friday by the American Civil Liberties Union and SC Equality against the S.C. Department of Motor Vehicles for not letting several same-sex plaintiffs married in other states use the names of their spouses on their S.C. driver’s licenses.)
“There still is a ray of hope,” Smith said. “There are some final legal options available to us.”
His 20-year-old group is a faith-based research organization that helped put the marriage constitutional amendment before S.C. voters in 2006. That amendment, which passed by 78-22 percent, is the one being challenged.
What makes South Carolina’s constitutional amendment different from other same-sex marriage bans that have been struck down in other federal courts, Smith said, is that it does offer some legal protection to same-sex couples.
Lawmakers who crafted the amendment to put before voters took pains to carve out an exception that said contracts between people of the same sex would be respected for the purpose of allowing visits in hospitals, for example, Smith said.
“We did not want to be discriminatory, except in defending the definition of marriage as between one man and one woman,” Smith said.
However, he said, same gender contracts involving matters such as health care or inheritance would involve “some inconvenience” for those couples, he said, since they would have to go to an attorney and have the arrangements put in legal form.
“We did not want to see same-sex legal arrangements rising to the same status as marriage, he said.
“We wanted one man, one woman marriage to be on a pedestal by itself and have certain benefits that flow from that, that would not necessarily flow from a same-sex relationship, ” he said. “It was a tightrope. We wanted to be fair, but at the same time took pains not to undermine traditional marriage and make clear that the relationship between one man and one woman held a unique position of honor.”
If he were writing a brief to the courts, Smith said, he would stress that lawmakers in crafting the amendment banning gay marriage went to great lengths to put fairness into it.
Moreover, Smith said he would stress that South Carolina’s lawmakers did not craft the marriage amendment simply because of the Bible’s emphasis on homosexuality as sin or marriage as a symbol of Christ and the Church.
“We are not haters. We have no animus. We are policy people who believe that marriage has not changed from the beginning of time because it underpins human flourishing. To destroy that invites peril. We also believe that marriage – the complementarity of the two genders – is the gold standard for society and raising children.”
THE UNITARIAN UNIVERSALIST MINISTER
The Rev. Neal Jones, 54, pastor of the 220-member Unitarian Universalist Congregation in Columbia’s Shandon neighborhood, said that at his church, gays and same-sex couples are welcome, and he has performed same-sex marriages that are not legally binding in South Carolina.
The basic principles of Unitarianism include the “inherent worth and dignity of every person” as well as “justice, equity and compassion in human relations,” Jones said. Acceptance of one another is another key tenet. Thus, same-sex marriage is compatible with Unitarian Universalist principles, he said.
Since before the Civil War, Unitarians in America have put those principles in action, Jones said, advocating against slavery, for women’s rights and for equal treatment of African-Americans during the nation’s tumultuous civil rights era, Jones said.
“All of us, straight or gay, are born that way,” Jones said. “Scientifically, there’s no question about it. Our sexual orientation is set at birth,” said Jones. “It’s just a matter of whether people want to accept that scientific fact or not.”
From a logical point of view, Jones said, “If two people love each other, and want to commit their lives to each other, why would we want to deny any couple that? There’s nothing more American and wholesome than that. If anything, people who support traditional family values should support same-sex marriage because we have a more stable society when we have stable relationships and stable families. All society benefits – that’s a conservative, traditional argument about this.”
“Same-sex marriage does change the definition of marriage, but the fact is, marriage has always been evolving. The Biblical model of marriage was polygamy – and we have certainly come a long way from that. Then, we moved to marriage being between a man and a woman, but where the woman was the property of a man. Regarding the woman as an equal partner has only changed in the last century or so.”
And then, two people of different races couldn’t get married. “So, yes, marriage is evolving. But what is traditional is that it’s still about two people who love each other and want to be committed to each other.”
In 2006, Jones noted, when South Carolina’s General Assembly put a referendum before the voters that said the state only recognized unions and marriages between a man and a woman, his congregation voted unaninimously to oppose it and passed its own resolution. That resolution said in part that the congregation was opposing it because “same-sex couples will be denied the rights and privileges afforded to heterosexual married couples.”
Jones also pointed out that such an amendment goes against the idea of separation of church and state.
“For the law to mandate that marriage must be between a man and a woman is to legally endorse one particular religious definition of marriage to the exclusion of others,” he said. “We would like to legally marry gay and lesbian couples, but the law discriminates against us.”