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US Religious Groups Vary in Views on Homosexuality - 2003-08-03


Gay Marriage isn't exactly a "hot topic" around the world, because in many societies, homosexuality is such a taboo, it's never discussed. Here in the United States, the culture has become a bit more accepting of the reality that some men and women are sexually attracted to their own gender. The U.S. Supreme Court recently ruled that laws against same-sex copulation are unconstitutional, and the state of Massachusetts is considering legislation that would give gays the freedom to marry.

But many Americans still believe homosexuality is immoral, and a recent poll indicates a majority believe gay marriage should not be allowed. The two biggest Christian denominations in the United States teach that homosexual behavior is a sin. But as VOA's Maura Farrelly reports, that doesn't mean all Christian denominations are as condemning, or as clear, on the issue.

If you have any doubts about whether Americans have become more comfortable discussing homosexuality, just listen to what aired on prime-time television last Thursday night.

Jack: "I tell you what. I'm going to take you to my gay group therapy. They'll help."
Karen:No! No more of your damned gay group therapy! How many times do you expect me to sit through 'Mama Mia'?!"
Jack: "Karen, I'm serious. Come with me. They'll help. I used to have multiple personalities. Now I'm only dating one guy."

That's from an episode of Will and Grace, one of the top-ranking shows on NBC television. It's about a gay man, Will, his best friend from college, Grace, who's heterosexual, and their gay and straight friends.

But while many Americans may find Will's character to be entertaining, that doesn't necessarily mean they'd be willing to give him all the privileges that come with marriage.

Under existing law, gay couples are vulnerable in a way married couples are not. For example, if a husband is injured, no one can prevent his wife from visiting him in the hospital. And if he dies, his wife automatically retains custody of any children they may have.

Not so with gay couples, regardless of how long they've been together. But many Americans insist marriage is, by its very nature, between a man and a woman. And as President Bush recently revealed at a press conference when asked for his opinions on homosexuality, this strictly limited view of marriage is shaped by a particular set of religious beliefs.

"Yeah, I am mindful that we're all sinners. And I caution those who may try to take the speck out of their neighbor's eye, when they got a log in their own. I think it's very important for our society to respect each individual. To welcome those with good hearts. To be a welcoming country. On the other hand, that does not mean that somebody like me needs to compromise on an issue such as marriage," Mr. Bush told reporters.

A day later, the White House announced President Bush is willing to consider a constitutional amendment that would define marriage in the eyes of the law as a union between one man and one woman. Evangelical Protestants praised the announcement. And it's exactly the sort of thing the Vatican was looking for, when it recently released a twelve-page document, calling on Catholic lawmakers to oppose gay marriage as a violation of thequote"natural moral law."

The Roman Catholic Church and the Southern Baptist Convention are the two biggest Christian denominations in the United States, and they both have very unambiguous views of homosexual behavior. It's a sin.

But not all Christian denominations subscribe to that view. Unitarian Universalists, for example, unconditionally welcome homosexuals… though that denomination isn't exactly the norm. What's more common is a situation like the one facing the Episcopal Church right now, where leaders will have to decide whether to ratify the recent election of an openly gay man as bishop. The United Methodist Church has been challenged in recent years by ministers who insist on blessing same-sex unions, in spite of the church's official policies. And the Presbyterian Church USA has been plagued by disagreements over the role of homosexuals in the church, perhaps more so than any other denomination in America.

"It certainly is the lightening rod that draws the most active struggle," said Mark Achtemeier, a theology professor at the University of Dubuque Theological Seminary. He said homosexuality may be the most contentious issue facing the nation's largest Presbyterian church since the days when members disagreed about slavery.

Two years ago, the church's General Assembly appointed a task force to consider the role of homosexuals in the church. That taskforce will be drawing upon biblical scripture, Presbyterian tradition, and scientific theories about homosexuality when it makes its recommendations in 2006. Mark Achtemeier said the issue has the potential to split the church, because the debate is really about basic, Christian teachings.

"The traditionalists are convinced that this is a debate about the authority of Scripture, and that if you give ground on this, you've essentially renounced loyalty to the Bible. People on the progressive side tend to see it as a justice issue and think abandoning the struggle for greater inclusion of gays and lesbians would be to walk away from the Bible's commitment to compassionate outreach to the oppressed," Mr. Achtemeier said.

Mark Achtemeier said he can't even begin to guess what recommendations the task force for will make. Right now, openly gay men and women are allowed to join the Presbyterian Church USA, they just can't be ministers. And ministers are allowed to bless same-sex unions, so long as they don't use the word "marriage." Some Presbyterian leaders are pushing for ministers to be allowed to use the word "marriage". But in the unlikely event that the taskforce makes that recommendation, there's no guarantee that gay marriages recognized by the church will also be recognized under the law. And they certainly won't be recognized as legal unions if a constitutional amendment is passed, defining marriage as a union between a man and a woman.

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