A handful of churches in Baton Rouge have opened their doors to same-sex couples wanting to get married inside their church. While the decision was a no-brainer in some congregations, at least one church, St. James Episcopal, made the move only after a long and divided internal debate.
The Unitarian Church of Baton Rouge was, unsurprisingly, a quick adopter. The church, among the most politically liberal in town, has long welcomed gay and lesbian parishioners to its services, including offering weddings. Until the landmark June 26 U.S. Supreme Court decision legalizing same-sex marriages, though, the church could not solemnize a legal marriage for a same-sex couple.
Right after the decision, the church, located on Goodwood Boulevard, posted on its marquee “You can get married here” and has kept displaying the message ever since.
The Rev. Steve Crump, senior minister at the Unitarian Church, said that at least six same-sex couples have already gotten married at the church.
“From our point of view, the state has finally caught up with exactly what we wanted to do for years and that is to conduct marriages with two consenting adults,” Crump said.
Meanwhile, St. James Episcopal, in downtown Baton Rouge, has been divided. Church documents show that the church debated the issue for months before its rector, the Rev. Mark Holland, quietly agreed last month to offer marriage services to such couples, though only to church parishioners. Holland made the move even though elected church leaders, known as the vestry, had months earlier rejected the idea in a nonbinding vote, with several citing concerns that parishioners might leave the church as a result.
In early July, just five days after the Supreme Court decision, the Episcopal Church approved two new marriage rites using gender-neutral language. In so doing, the Episcopal Church joined two other mainline Protestant groups that allow gay marriage in all their congregations: the United Church of Christ and the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.).
Episcopal leaders, however, left the decision of whether to administer the new sacraments to bishops and rectors. Holland appears to be the only rector in Baton Rouge who has decided to allow same-sex weddings in his church.
In July, The Advocate surveyed south Louisiana Episcopal churches and found that only a handful, most of them in New Orleans, were interested in administering the new rites. Holland wouldn’t say what he would do, instead directing all questions to Bishop Morris Thompson. On Thursday, reached again, Holland did the same: “I will follow the directive of my bishop,” is all he would say.
Thompson, who oversees 50 churches in southeastern Louisiana, issued his directive on Nov. 19. It gives the green light to willing Episcopal churches to start holding same-sex wedding ceremonies as early as Nov. 29, the first Sunday in the Advent season.
Thompson said he is purposely not keeping a tally of which churches are offering same-sex services and which ones are not, though he said he can guess which ones probably are.
The bishop has made clear from the beginning that he won’t punish any priests who as a matter of conscience opt not to administer same-sex weddings, provided they refer to him couples whom they turn away. Thompson also has urged rectors like Holland to closely take the temperature of their congregations and perhaps hold off if resistance to same-sex marriage is strong. At the same time, he left the final decision up to the rector.
“This is a sacrament. There won’t be any voting on this,” Thompson said. “We don’t vote on confessions or whether we do the Eucharist.”
Hundreds of same-sex couples across Louisiana have gotten marriage licenses since the beginning of July. New Orleans has had 163 such couples obtain licenses, or about 7 percent of all the ones issued, while East Baton Rouge Parish has had 95, or 6 percent of all marriage licenses, according to the officials who oversee those functions in those locales.
Ann and Myriah Mengelson-Clark had for years been as close to legally married as Louisiana allowed them to be. In 2004, three years after they started dating, they signed legal documents binding them together, including giving each other powers of attorney. In 2010, they legally changed their last names to Mengelson-Clark. A year later, they became parents of a boy, now 4 years old.
Even so, after the Supreme Court ruling, they jumped at the chance to get married. They chose a date barely two weeks away, July 14, the 11th anniversary of when they were legally joined. They also said they wanted to be married soon so they could solidify both their joint legal status as parents of their son. Both attended the Unitarian Church in Baton Rouge and knew immediately they wanted a church wedding.
“We wanted it to be special, have great memories and involve our close family,” said Ann Mengelson-Clark, formerly Ann Mengelson, who did most of the speaking for the couple.
They invited a small number of family and friends to the Tuesday night ceremony at the church and then headed to Superior Grill for the reception.
Ann and Myriah Mengelson-Clark say they’ve received nothing but positive responses so far when people have asked about their marriage. Yet, they keep their guard up.
“While we have many wonderful people in Baton Rouge, we fear that some don’t have full empathetic understanding for the need for same-sex couples to be married,” Ann Mengelson-Clark said. “There’s an ever present risk of running into someone like that.”
At St. James Episcopal, the internal debate about same-sex marriage was laid out in a letter to St. James parishioners. It was mailed out days after an Aug. 24 special meeting of the church vestry. According to the letter, 14 out of 18 members of the vestry opposed St. James offering same-sex weddings, mostly based on their reading of scripture to say that marriage is a “rite reserved between a man and a woman.” But they had other concerns.
“Some of them opposed were concerned that moving forward on something so new and controversial might have a negative impact on the congregation financially and membership wise,” according to the letter.
Holland did not reveal his decision until late November and did so quietly, via the minutes of a Nov. 16 vestry meeting reprinted on page 7 in St. James’ monthly newsletter: “Fr. Holland stated that he will make the sacraments available to any legal parishioners of St. James.”
John Sykes, who is gay and is a member of the St. James congregation, said he is happily surprised to learn of Holland’s decision. While he and his partner are not currently contemplating marriage, he said he’s glad they have the option.
“It’s your church, it’s your parish, and your church is home,” he said. “It’s certainly different from going to the justice of the peace because it’s where you belong.”