The wedding last Saturday at First United Methodist Church in uptown Charlotte drew nearly 300 well-wishers, including Mayor Jennifer Roberts, a friend of the happy couple.
But because the officiating clergy defied their denomination’s rules by marrying a same-sex couple – John Romano and Jim Wilborne – in a United Methodist church, a formal complaint was filed with the local bishop before the weekend was over.
A 2015 ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court gave same-sex couples in all 50 states the legal right to get married. They can go to any courthouse, for example, and have a civil ceremony. But the decision made clear that houses of worship cannot be compelled to hold gay and lesbian weddings in their sanctuaries. So each denomination has its own rules.
And there are so many denominations – with so many different and often nuanced beliefs, policies and histories – that navigating the religious landscape on same-sex marriage can be like trying to hack through a thicket.
Some houses of worship have embraced same-sex marriage, while others still strongly oppose it. Then there are those that have struggled with the issue and settled on a compromise.
For those up for making the journey to a fuller understanding, here are 10 things you should know about gay marriage and religion in America:
1. Despite its name, the United Methodist Church is divided over LGBT issues – including same-sex marriage.
It’s the country’s biggest mainline Protestant denomination, with 7 million U.S. members. For now, the United Methodist Church sanctions marriage only between a man and a woman. And its Book of Discipline says clergy who bless same-sex marriages in United Methodist sanctuaries could face a reprimand or even a potentially career-ending church trial.
The issue could be up for debate in May when the denomination holds its next General Conference, in Portland, Ore. Many liberal members would like to follow the lead of other mainline denominations and allow same-sex marriage. But many conservative members oppose that, with some talking about splitting the denomination because of the deep differences.
2. Presbyterians are already split – over same-sex marriage and much more.
After years of struggling with LGBT issues, the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) voted last year to change its definition of marriage to include a “commitment between two people” – words that formally recognize gay marriage.
But there are other Presbyterian denominations, including the Presbyterian Church in America. These Presbyterians are much more conservative and remain adamantly opposed to same-sex marriage.
The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) is still the biggest Presbyterian group, but its increasingly liberal stands have caused many of its former churches to bolt and join the Presbyterian Church in America or one of the other branches.
One key nuance: The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) does not mandate that any of its churches marry same-sex couples. It’s left up to each pastor to decide whether he or she will officiate at a gay wedding. And each church’s session, or elected lay leadership, decides whether the sanctuary can be used for such ceremonies.
3. It’s the same story with Lutherans.
The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) has also had a history of internal division on LGBT issues. The denomination leaves it up to the individual clergy in consultation with their congregation to decide whether or not to marry same-sex couples. Some liberal ELCA churches have jumped at the chance to marry gay and lesbian members. Other ELCA churches have decided against it.
Then there’s the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod, a more conservative denomination. It is a strong “no” when it comes to same-sex marriage, calling it “contrary to the will of the Creator.”
4. The Catholic hierarchy says it’s no sin to be gay – as long as you stay celibate.
Catholic doctrine says homosexual desires are not the sin; acting on them is. Catholicism also teaches that all sex outside of marriage is sinful, and that marriage is reserved for one man and one woman.
Ergo, don’t expect to see any same-sex weddings in Catholic sanctuaries anytime soon.
Liberal Catholics had hoped that Pope Francis would offer some hope that the world’s largest denomination – 1.2 billion members, including 78 million in the United States – would someday allow same-sex marriage. After all, this pope famously said “Who am I to judge?” three years ago when asked about homosexuality.
But the pontiff appeared to shut the door this month on same-sex marriage in the Roman Catholic Church. In his 261-page exhortation on the family, he wrote that same-sex unions “may not simply be equated with marriage. No union that is temporary or closed to the transmission of life can ensure the future of society.”
5. Baptist churches are locally autonomous, but most say no.
No to same-sex marriage, that is.
The predominantly white Southern Baptist Convention, the country’s largest Protestant denomination, with almost 16 million adherents, has taken a leading role in opposing same-sex marriage.
The predominantly black National Baptist Convention says it won’t tell local churches what to do, but the denomination itself “affirms that marriage is a sacred Biblical covenant between a man and a woman.”
There are many other Baptist denominations and groups, and some have member churches that are liberal and happily marry same-sex couples. A Charlotte example: Myers Park Baptist, which is affiliated with American Baptist Churches USA and the Alliance of Baptists. In 2007, it was kicked out of the Baptist State Convention of North Carolina for being too welcoming to gays and lesbians.
6. The Jewish view? It depends.
The Reform Jewish movement has been a leader in supporting gay and lesbian rights, including same-sex marriage, since the mid-1990s.
Ditto the Reconstructionist Jewish movement.
In 2012, the Conservative Jewish movement approved a ceremony to allow gay and lesbian couples to marry.
But Orthodox Judaism rejects same-sex marriage, and its leaders have lobbied against it over the years.
A few nuances: Individual rabbis in the Jewish traditions that allow gays and lesbians to marry can opt not to officiate. Also, Conservative rabbis, and some Reform rabbis, too, will only preside at same-sex weddings at which those getting married are both Jewish.
7. Episcopal Church’s yes to gay marriage has consequences.
In 2015, at their General Convention, Episcopal bishops gave their clergy the green light to perform same-sex weddings and OK’d new liturgies or services for gay and lesbian couples desiring a church marriage.
The Episcopal bishops also changed the church’s rules governing marriage by substituting “couple” for “man and woman.” Finally, the voting bishops said clergy could refuse to officiate at a same-sex wedding, and a bishop could ban such services in his or her diocese.
Early this year, there was fallout in Canterbury, England – site of a meeting of Anglican archbishops.
The U.S. Episcopal Church is the American branch of the Anglican Communion, a worldwide affiliation of 44 national churches, many of them much more conservative. At the January meeting, the archbishops voted to suspend the U.S. Episcopal Church because of its liberal stand on same-sex marriage. The action means the Episcopal Church can’t vote or participate in key decision-making discussions at Anglican conferences for three years.
8. The pioneers for same-sex marriage.
Besides Reform Judaism, this list of houses of worship that have long stood up for marriage equality includes the United Church of Christ, Unitarian Universalism, and the Metropolitan Community Church.
9. The pillars for traditional marriage.
Besides the Roman Catholic Church, the Southern Baptist Convention and Orthodox Judaism, this list of the strongest opponents of same-sex marriage includes Assemblies of God (Pentecostals), Eastern Orthodox Christianity, Islam and the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints – also known as the Mormons.
10. A final word: Hindus, Buddhists and millennials.
What about Hinduism and Buddhism? Those worldwide religions don’t appear to have an official position on same-sex marriage that covers all schools within the faiths. Some accept, some oppose.
But one group that clearly supports same-sex marriage: Millennials, those 18- to 34-year-olds who have bypassed the baby boomers as the largest living generation. A 2015 Pew poll found that 70 percent of them support same-sex marriage.
Even among young evangelical Protestants, whose churches are often the least gay-friendly, 51 percent now say homosexuality should be accepted by society, according to a later Pew poll.
Meaning: The outlook for same-sex marriage and religion could well change in the years ahead.