Leaders of a Congregational church in Cleveland, Ohio, say they will not sign marriage licenses until gay and lesbian couples are allowed to legally wed in the state.
That means heterosexual couples exchanging wedding vows at Pilgrim Congregational United Church of Christ will need an additional civil ceremony by a justice of the peace or a judge to make their union legal.
The move, approved by an overwhelming voice vote during a recent congregational meeting, is a civil-rights protest, said the church’s pastor, Rev. John Tamilio III.
The church’s board of directors and the congregation agreed that signing marriage licenses for straight couples and not gay couples is unfair, he said.
“It treats one segment of our congregation like second-class citizens. That is an injustice,” said Tamilio. “We will still perform holy unions for all couples; we just won’t sign the state license.”
Rev. Michael Schuenemeyer, who advocates for gay rights from the denomination’s Cleveland headquarters, said he knows of at least six UCC congregations—three in the Minneapolis area, one in Oregon, one in Akron, Ohio, and one in North Carolina—that have adopted such protests.
Rev. Robert Dreese of First Grace United Church of Christ in Akron said he wrestled with the issue but concluded that the state was restricting him from serving his entire congregation.
He announced his decision from the pulpit two years ago. “There were tears, people were so moved,” he said.
The passage last fall of a California amendment that ended same-sex marriage inspired Pilgrim’s three pastors to take a stand, Tamilio said.
The 12 members of the church board unanimously approved the proposal before the congregation gave its blessing.
About 200 of the church’s members participated in the voice vote. There were only a handful of “nays,” said Tamilio.
He said one of the few who objected expressed concern that the move would discriminate against heterosexuals in the process of righting a wrong against gays and lesbians.
But Pilgrim members Bill Avery and Molly Holland, a couple who plan to exchange wedding vows at the church, embraced the protest. Avery, 74, a retired social worker, is black. Holland, 67, a retired medical technician, is white.
“In the not-too-distant past, we couldn’t be legally married in a lot of states,” said Holland. “So we feel we should be supportive of the next group that’s not allowed to be legally married. It’s an issue of civil rights and social justice.”
The 1.2 million-member UCC adopted a resolution supporting gay marriage at its national synod in Atlanta three years ago.