Church rules same-sex weddings cannot be called 'marriages'
Opponents vow to appeal to national church court
November 22, 1999
NEWARK, New Jersey (CNN) -- A Presbyterian Church regional court ruled Monday that New York's upstate churches can continue to hold wedding-like blessings of same-sex couples as long as they are called "unions" -- not marriages.
The churches of the Hudson River Presbytery, which covers 95 churches in New York's lower Hudson Valley, had been challenged by a group of ministers who accused them of bypassing church laws forbidding marriages of gays and lesbians.
Julius Poppinga, a lawyer representing the ministers opposed to the unions, said they would appeal the decision to the highest court of the national organization, Presbyterian Church U.S.A.
"In the eyes of the church a marriage is the union of a man and a woman ... They are playing a semantic game," said Poppinga.
The controversy began when the union of Jeff Halvorsen and George Cisneros was blessed at a church in Dobbs Ferry, New York, and a story and picture of the couple ran in the local newspapers, quoting them referring to their union as a marriage.
"Our marriage is a union made by God," said Halvorsen of Monday's decision. "Whatever decision the church makes about gay unions, it's about the place where these unions are made -- not about what the unions mean to us."
Minister could have been fired
Their commitment was blessed by the Rev. Susan DeGeorge, one of a number of Presbyterian clergy who have conducted several such ceremonies.
The church's Synod of the Northeast, which oversees the presbyteries in New York, New Jersey and New England, was asked to decide if DeGeorge and other Presbyterian clergy can continue to perform commitment ceremonies if they're not called marriages.
"We didn't use that term during the service and the ministers did not use that term," Halvorsen said.
A few weeks after the Halvorsen-Cisneros ceremony in January, the Hudson River Presbytery, a body of clergy members and church elders that oversees 95 churches in New York's lower Hudson Valley, voted overwhelmingly to give ministers the freedom to decide whether to unite couples of the same sex.
The group of church leaders and clergy members gathered in Newark on November 4 to form a denominational judicial court in an appeal brought after DeGeorge and her supporters won the first round of the dispute.
Had the Synod of the Northeast found the Hudson Valley churches were wrong to bless same-sex unions, DeGeorge and the other ministers there could be disciplined, or even fired.
The Rev. Marc Benton -- the pastor who first asked the Hudson River Presbytery to investigate DeGeorge's actions and brought the court challenge -- has said he will take his appeal to the national Presbyterian court.
In 1995, the church's national organization rejected a proposed amendment prohibiting its clergy from participating in same-sex unions. The church has 3.7 million members nationally.
Conflicts at other churches
Increasing numbers of gays and lesbians want greater roles in their churches -- in some cases as clergy members. But the national debate on religion and homosexuality is not unique to Presbyterians. Some recent examples:
Gays and lesbians to meet with Falwell at religious summit
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