WASHINGTON – Two Episcopal bishops were among a host of religious leaders who petitioned against the passage of the Federal Marriage Amendment on Capitol Hill last week.
"Marriage is a theological matter of first importance for the church," retired New Jersey Bishop Joe Morris Doss said at a press conference last Monday. "Such issues demand the church’s most careful and profound deliberation, and that is to take place in our parishes, councils, seminaries, publications, and places of theological reflection.
"Congress, on the other hand, is not the proper forum for this sort of study, debate, and decision-making [on marriage]," he continued. "The state is not to dictate doctrine to the church, or pre-empt a lively and extensive debate by precipitously deciding it for us
The bishops were speaking as part of the "Clergy for Fairness" – a coalition of progressive Christian groups that oppose the passage of an amendment to the U.S. Constitution defining marriage as a union between one man and one woman only.
Debate over the Federal Marriage Amendment has been heating up among religious circles as the Senate prepares for a vote on June 6 or 7.
Most of the effort has come from the conservative side, with some churches declaring June 4 "Marriage Protection Sunday." On that day, Southern Baptists pastors are encouraged to preach about marriage from the pulpit and congregants are called to contact senators in support of the amendment.
The Washington-based Family Research Council has also collected over 37,800 "marriage petition signatures" they plan to send to Senators before the congressional vote.
In the opposing side, the Clergy for Fairness enlisted 1,600 clergy in a petition against the amendment. They have also sent an open letter to the U.S. Senate that expresses concern over the restriction of "civil rights of an entire group of Americans" in the proposed amendment.
"Misusing our nation’s most cherished document for this purpose would tarnish our proud tradition of expanding citizens’ rights by Constitutional amendment, a tradition long supported by America’s faith communities," the letter states. "These concerns alone merit rejection of the Marriage Protection Amendment."
Many of the churches that claim membership in the Clergy for Fairness, such as the United Church of Christ and the Unitarian Universalist Association, approve gay marriage within their walls, and fear that such an amendment would impost restrictions on such blessings.
"This amendment would endorse one religiously biased view over all others and impose it on all Americans by constitutional fiat," the open letter stated.
However, for some member churches, the gay marriage issue is a threat to denominational unity and stability.
The U.S. Episcopal Church is a prime example of that internal divide. Since the election of an openly gay bishop in New Hampshire in 2003, the denomination has lost dozens of churches as well as the rights to participate in some global Anglican meetings.
The church has also been asked by Anglicans around the world to place a moratorium on all gay union blessing ceremonies and gay ordinations – a decision it will take up during its General Convention meeting in mid June.
Already some 900 Episcopal clergy have signed a petition urging church bishops to respect the international request and refrain from approving gay bishops or blessing same sex unions.
"It is our hope to demonstrate to the House of Bishops with absolute clarity that the clergy of this church want to return to our historical, biblical roots," said the Rev. David Roseberry, a priest from Plano, Texas, who started the Web-based petition.
Despite the controversy at home, the Episcopal bishops joined the Clergy For Fairness in calling against the Federal Marriage Amendment, addressing gay marriage as an "issue of justice."
"The people that we’re talking about are human beings with all the human dignity that God has endowed them with — children of God — and we are to see them that way and treat them that way," said Doss. "…let me tell you, the church itself, when it sorts out all of the various issues that come before it in history, always lands on the side of justice, because that’s where God is."