Following a May decision by the California Supreme Court that struck down a ban on same sex marriages, many gay couples have been seeking out churches that will perform long-awaited wedding ceremonies. While many couples have decided to marry at various city halls across the state, others are opting to go the more traditional route and take their vows in a religious setting.
For those who wish to tie the proverbial knot this summer, the Church in Ocean Park, in Santa Monica, will have ceremonies for both heterosexual and homosexual couples Sunday, July 6th.
The Rev. Janet Gollery McKeithen, who has led the congregation at the Hill Street house of worship for three years, plans to defy the doctrine of her church — United Methodist Church — that pertains to marriage by officiating wedding ceremonies with same-sex partners alongside heterosexual couples.
“I decided that there needs to be a prophetic witness that God loves everyone equally,” McKeithen told The Argonaut in an interview a week before the marriages are set to take place.
United Methodist Church doctrine forbids its ministers to perform gay and lesbian marriages, and does not permit anyone who is openly gay to become a minister.
According to its doctrines, the United Methodist Church maintains that “all persons are individuals of sacred worth [… and it] encourages United Methodists to be in ministry with and for all people.”
McKeithen feels that those contradictions confuse the public and even some of its ministers.
“According to the church, I am not supposed to marry gay and lesbian couples,” the minister said. “I believe that I am going against the church’s ruling, but I don’t believe that I’m going against my faith and tradition.”
There is a certain amount of risk that McKeithen could incur when she marries a same-sex couple next month. At least three United Methodist ministers have had to leave the church after breaking with church policy.
The Rev. Jimmy Creech was defrocked after a highly publicized church trial in 1999 after his participation in same-sex union ceremonies.
In 1987, Rose Mary Denman, an openly gay minister, was also removed from her duties by a United Methodist Church court in New Hampshire, and in 2005, Irene Elizabeth Stroud had her clergy credentials taken away after she was convicted in a church trial of violating church law by engaging in a lesbian relationship.
McKeithen, who is married, is aware of the aforementioned cases and of the risk that is involved.
“I’m risking my professional career,” she acknowledged.
The California Supreme Court ruling made McKeithen consider the juxtaposition of the church’s historical commitment to social justice, including women’s suffrage, labor rights, civil rights and the current social environment in California, where the majority of the electorate now appear to accept marriage between citizens of the same gender.
“It doesn’t make sense to me that the state is more compassionate than the church [on same-sex marriage],” the United Methodist minister said.
The court decision has galvanized groups that vigorously oppose same-sex couples marrying and it has propelled a campaign to put an initiative on the November ballot that would reverse the court’s decision. Earlier this month, Secretary of State Debra Bowen’s office certified the number of signatures gathered that were necessary to qualify the proposal to be voted on in the fall.
“The response from the people of this state has been unprecedented in support of marriage’s legacy, by responding with an all-out volunteer signature campaign,” said Ron Prentice, chief executive officer of the California Family Council and chairman of the “ProtectMarriage .com” coalition, a sponsor of the amendment. “We’re so grateful to the over one million voters who signed the marriage petition in time for the November election.”
McKeithen feels that the views expressed by organizations like Prentice’s are contrary to what her religious instruction teaches.
“It’s so damaging and hurtful,” the minister said of the rhetoric that many of the anti-gay religious groups often use. “It is the opposite of what Jesus taught, and for religious leaders to say those kinds of things is unconscionable.”
Randy Thomasson, president of the Campaign for Children and Families, a nonprofit group that promotes socially conservative causes, urged county clerks around the state not to issue marriage licenses to gay couples.
“The judges and the governor are violating the constitution and the statutes, but county clerks know they have a duty follow the statutes, which haven’t been changed yet,” said Thomasson last month. “Clerks don’t have to issue homosexual ‘marriage’ licenses, and they shouldn’t.”
Between June 17th and June 23rd, the week that California county clerks were allowed to begin recording marriage certificates for gays and lesbians, the Los Angeles County Registrar-Recorder/County Clerk’s Office issued 1,805 marriage licenses. The county does not keep records of licenses for same-sex couples.
“June is historically a busy month, but we have seen a definite spike in the number of applications for marriage licenses,” said Eileen Shea, a spokeswoman for the county registrar-recorder.
At the LAX Courthouse, there have been 218 licenses issued and 73 civil marriage ceremonies.
The Church in Ocean Park has a legacy of local social activism in Santa Monica. The rent control movement originated at the interfaith place of worship, and the church also sponsors an annual swim event to raise awareness for poverty.
“The Church in Ocean Park has historically embraced the progressive politics of Santa Monica,” said Santa Monica City Councilman Kevin McKeown. Performing joint weddings for heterosexual and gay couples is “keeping with their rich history of progressive actions,” McKeown added.
Prentice is banking on the electorate approving the November initiative, which would halt same-sex marriages in California.
“Passing this amendment is the only way for the people to override the four Supreme Court judges who want to redefine marriage for our entire society,” he said.
Los Angeles 11th District City Councilman Bill Rosendahl, who attended Los Angeles’s first same-sex wedding in Beverly Hills on June 17th and will officiate at another ceremony later this summer, urged his constituents to be vigilant regarding the November ballot measure.
“Together, we will make sure that this decision is not overturned at the ballot box,” the councilman said. “And together, we will work to make sure that someday soon our equal rights are recognized by the federal government.”
McKeown is also in favor of the controversial court ruling.
“I’m happy that the state now recognizes the rights of people who are in love to join their lives in full legal recognition,” he said.
At Argonaut press time, two couples — one heterosexual and one lesbian — were scheduled to take their vows before McKeithen in July. Anyone who would like to be married at the Church in Ocean Park can contact the church at (310) 399-1631 ext. 2. In order to be married next month at the church, couples must inform McKeithen by Monday, June 30th.
“There was a time when interracial couples could not be married,” McKeithen noted. “That was about civil rights, and same gender marriage is about civil rights too.
“It all comes down to social justice, and believing that we’re all equal.”