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Religious Tolerance logo

Homosexuality and Christian denominations

Part 1:
The Presbyterian Church (USA): lesbian
and gay ordination, and committment
ceremonies. From 1991 to 2000-MAY

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Prior to 1997, many same-sex couples in the U.S. celebrated their committment to each other by holding informal ceremonies. These committment ceremonies have tremendous personal meaning to the participants, but no legal significance.

In the past, most U.S. gay and lesbian groups had been giving priority to reducing anti-gay violence, and attaining security in employment and accommodation rather than trying to have states and the federal government formally recognize same-sex relationships. Then, during the 1990s, a group in Hawaii decided to go for broke. They independently mounted a campaign to widen the definition of marriage to include same-sex couples. This started a process which has led to some states recognizing loving, committed same-sex couples either by re-defining marriage to include them, or by creating a parallel system of civil unions or domestic partnerships. Civil unions typically grant same-sex couples the same state rights as married couples automatically receive, except for what is perhaps the most important right: to call one's relationship a marriage. Domestic partnerships are similar, but typically give fewer rights to the couple. It wasn't until much later that the first state offered marriage to same-sex couples. That was Massachusetts in 2004.

Many religiously liberal congregations and synagogues conduct civil union/domestic partnership services or marriages for same-sex couples. They also ordained candidates for the ministry. Some Presbyterian same-sex couples asked to have similar recognition of their relationship in their church and to have gays and lesbians ordained. This has triggered a vigorous debate within the denomination.

Both secular and liberal religious groups have also worked towards legalizing same-sex marriage in each state, and making marriage ceremonies in Presbyterian churches available for same-sex couples.

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The path towards recognition of same-sex unions and SSM:

bullet 1991 Report: The PCUSA report: "Keeping Body and Soul Together: Sexuality, Spirituality and Social Justice" discussed same-sex civil unions. it recommended that:

"the moral for Christians ought not be marriage, but rather justice-love...Where there is justice-love, sexual expression has ethical integrity. That moral principle applies to single, as well as to married, persons, to gay, lesbian and bisexual persons, as well as to heterosexual persons."

A minority on the Committee found that Scripture condemned all same-gender sexual expression as intrinsiclly immoral. One source reports that, by a lopsided vote of 501 to 7, the General Assembly voted to reject the majority report and accept the minority report. They:

  • Declared that God's intention is that sexual activity be confined to one woman and one man within a marriage;

  • Offered compassion and forgiveness for gays and lesbians who cannot follow that path; and

  • Confirmed that no openly homosexual persons can be ordained.

However, General Assembly documents indicate that no decision was made on either report; neither the majority nor the minority position was accepted.


1991 General Assembly: The General Assembly did issue an "authoritative guidance" that:

"the session should not allow the use of the church facilities, and a minister of Word and Sacrament should not officiate at a ceremony determined to be the same as a marriage ceremony."

It was a full 13 years later that this guidance became effective. In 2004, Massachusetts became the first state in the U.S. to allow same-sex couples to marry.

bullet 1994 General Assembly: The General Assembly passed a constitutional amendment that would prevent clergy from blessing same-sex unions. This was later was rejected by a vote of the presbyteries in 1995.

bullet 1998-NOV: NY: Same-sex union ceremonies were openly performed at South Presbyterian church in Dobbs Ferry, NY. The nearby Bethlehem Presbyterian Church in New Windsor NY objected to this practice and filed a complaint with the Presbytery of the Hudson River during 1998-NOV.

In 1999-JAN, following a study of the complaint, the Presbytery voted 107 to 35 to allow ministers to perform same-sex union rituals. 1 They also stated that this action:

"... reflects our understanding at this time that these ceremonies do not constitute marriage as defined by 'The Book of Order'." 2

Steve Geckeler of the Presbyterian Church in White Places, NY, said:

"I think that God's tears are a lot less every time we affirm monogamy over promiscuity."

Commentators speculated that this action would probably trigger some action by the Church on union ceremonies. This could take the form of a complaint against the presbytery or session or minister. It could trigger an amendment to the The Book of Order -- the denomination's constitution -- which would totally prohibit such rituals.

The 1994 General Assembly did pass such an amendment, but it was rejected by the presbyteries in 1995. More details


1999: Case reaches the General Assembly Permanent Judicial Commission:

PCUSA NEWS reported that:

"In a case that is now under appeal to the General Assembly's Permanent Judicial Commission (a.k.a. PJC); the church's highest court), lower courts have ruled that amending the church's constitution to flatly prohibit same-sex unions is a better way of resolving the issue than depending on court cases. At least three presbyteries (district governing bodies) have submitted overtures to that effect." 3
Any resolutions intended to change the denomination's constitution would presumably have to wait until the 2001 General Assembly because of the two year moratorium.
bullet 1999-NOV: NY, NJ: ON NOV-22, the Permanent Judicial Commission (PJC) of the Synod of the Northeast dismissed complaints against two presbyteries. One was related to union ceremonies:


A minister of the South Presbyterian Church of Dobbs Ferry, NY, (part of the Presbytery of Hudson River) may conduct "holy union" ceremonies for gay or lesbian couples if they first make clear that the ritual is not the same as a marriage. They ruled 7 to 3 that:

"Because the plain language of the motion adopted by Respondent Presbytery states that it is not authorizing marriage ceremonies between persons of the same sex, we find (the) arguments offered by the complainants unpersuasive."

Jeff Halvorsen, whose union was blessed in Dobbs Ferry, said:

"I'm very pleased, very happy that they've made this ruling, which means that there is still a possibility of having gay unions in the Presbyterian Church."

George Cisneros, his spouse, commented:

"Of course I'm happy with the decision and regard it as a victory. Anything that's not derogatory is a victory."

Julius Poppinga, counsel for the complainants, said that the decision will "certainly" be appealed.


2000-JAN-11: NY, VT, NJ: According to PCUSA NEWS, three judicial cases from the Synod of the Northeast have been appealed to the General Assembly Permanent Judicial Commission (PJC). In the Hudson River Presbytery's case, the synod PJC ruled that same-sex union ceremonies are not marriages and are thus permitted in churches.

PCUSA News reported:

"In his arguments ... Gordon Fish, who represented the complainants, argued that the synod PJC's ruling that same-sex unions do not constitute marriage is a 'case of semantic hair-splitting' and a 'sham.' He urged the court to overturn it. ... Blessing what the church historically has considered sinful, Fish said, is unconstitutional. He claimed that that view is supported by both the scriptures and the confessions. 4 [The gay couple] didn't talk about being holy-unioned, but about being married...They didn't order a holy union cake, but a wedding cake."

bullet 2000-MAY-20:  NY, VT, NJ: Tampa Bay, Charlotte and San Joaquin filed overtures to this year's General Assembly seeking to amend the constitution to prohibit same-sex union ceremonies. 5


2000-MAY-25: NY, NJ: The PJC decided that Presbyterian ministers may perform same-sex union services as long as they reflect:

"... our understanding at this time that these ceremonies do not constitute marriage as defined in the Book of Order."

They also decided that a church session may accept a gay person as a candidate for ministry, even though a sexually active gay person cannot be ordained. Due to the "high number of cases," the court had to defer a decision on a Vermont case.

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This topic continues in the next essay

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References used:

The following information sources were used to prepare and update the above essay. The hyperlinks are not necessarily still active today.

  1. News summary, Religion Today 1999-FEB-1
  2. J.L. Van Marter, "Hudson river Presbytery Affirms 'Freedom' to Conduct Same-Sex Union Ceremonies," PCUSA News, 1999-FEB-3, #99054
  3. PCUSA News release, 2000-APR-25 #00166
  4. "PJC Says Gay Man May Be Ordination Candidate, Ministers May Bless
    Same-Sex Unions,
    " PCUSA NEWS, 2000-MAY-24 #00209
  5. "PC(USA)'s highest court hears appeals on three gay rights-related cases," PCUSA NEWS, 2000-MAY-20 #00203
  6. "Assembly committee recommends prohibition of same-sex unions," OCUSA NEWS, 2000-JUN-27 
  7. "Assembly sends same sex union ban amendment to presbyteries," PCAUSA NEWS, 2000-JUN-30.
  8. "Vote on same-sex union amendment will be close, early returns indicate," PCAUSA NEWS, 2001-JAN-24.
  9. "Proposed amendment vote tallies," at:
  10. John Sniffen, "Controversial report on families sent back for more work," The Presbyterian Outlook, at:

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Copyright © 1996 to 2014 by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Last update: 2014-JUN-27
Author: B.A. Robinson
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