It’s only a coincidence that on Saturday, Presbyterian Church leaders will be discussing the inclusion of gays, lesbians and transgender people into the church.
The conference of regional church leaders will happen at the same time and near the same place that Gov. Bobby Jindal headlines The Response at the Pete Maravich Assembly Center, a prayer rally that has attracted attention and controversy because of its ties to the American Family Association. The AFA is a conservative religious group that opposes gay marriage and other gay-rights issues and particularly provoked ire for at one point suggesting that acceptance of same-sex marriage and abortion was associated with natural disasters like Hurricane Katrina.
The University Presbyterian church on LSU’s campus, led by the Rev. Patti Snyder, is hosting the Marriage Matters regional conference for the Covenant Network of Presbyterians, a national group of church leaders that supports LGBT marriage rights. The conference will feature discussion about biblical interpretations, legal changes and personal stories about same-sex marriage in the church.
The Presbyterian Church USA is among the most liberal leaning Christian denominations. Last summer, the church leadership voted to allow pastors to marry same-sex couples in states where it’s legal. And next month, pastors and representatives from Presbyterian churches across the country will again vote on whether to change the language in their constitution defining marriage as between “two persons” rather than from between “a man and a woman.”
If the language is changed, Snyder said, it could affect how Presbyterian ministers describe and talk about marriage to their congregations and could further impact the church’s wedding policy.
The Rev. Cynthia Rigby, a professor of the Austin Seminary who is speaking at the conference, said the Presbyterian Church USA has been one of the leading mainline Protestant denominations supporting LGBT rights including marriage and being ordained ministers.
“This has been so long in the making,” Rigby said. “What we want is for the church to be a leader in making the change and not just following culture.”
Many major religions such as the Roman Catholic Church, Islam, the American Baptist Church, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and Orthodox Jewish Movement prohibit same-sex marriage. But the United Church of Christ and the Evangelical Lutheran Church are among Christian denominations that allow marriage among gay couples. The Episcopal church allows blessings of those marriages.
But the change hasn’t been an easy pill to swallow for many religious denominations, including some Presbyterian churches.
Rigby said part of her job is to reach out to Presbyterian churches who have expressed a desire to splinter away from the denomination and encourage them to stay. She said about 200 congregations, out of 11,000, have left the Presbyterian Church USA since it started implementing a more LGBT inclusive policy.
While some left, the changes have also attracted others who are seeking churches with more open attitudes toward homosexuality, she said.
LSU Religious Studies Assistant Professor Stephen Finley said the national conversation about gay marriage is forcing churches to address the issues head on.
“One way or another they’re all going to have to deal with it, either in their sermons or some of them in their official meetings,” he said. “As the legal cases and precedents move across the country it’s going to be even more pressing. Some of them will embrace it, but many of them will not.”
LGBT issues have been spotlighted several times in Louisiana and the Capital City this past year. But gay-rights advocates in the state have mostly been on the losing side of votes and judgments related to their cause.
In Baton Rouge, Snyder has been a vocal LGBT supporter. She said her church is inclusive and she personally is whole-heartedly in support of same sex-marriage.
“The rights for LGBTQ persons and acceptance is a long journey. Just like all civil rights justice issues,” Snyder said. “But I’m a person of faith and I don’t think God is finished with us yet.”
Snyder lent her voice to a movement in Baton Rouge last year to pass an ordinance preventing discrimination against LGBT people in areas of housing and employment. The Fairness Ordinance, as it was dubbed by supporters, was ultimately rejected by the Metro Council.
Later, a Louisiana judge became the first federal district court judge in the U.S. to uphold the state’s ban on same-sex marriage since the U.S. Supreme Court decided the previous year to strike down part of the federal Defense of Marriage Act. A month later, a state district judge in Lafayette ruled that Louisiana’s ban on same-sex marriage is unconstitutional. The issue is now before the nation’s top court again.
It’s unclear what topics will be discussed at The Response prayer rally on Saturday. Organizers have described the event as a gathering of people to “pray and fast for America.”
Upon learning about the prayer rally, Snyder said she and other leaders have since organized their own silent prayer vigil from 3:45 p.m. to 4:30 p.m. as a response. Participants will stand along the side of the roads with signs.
“We are praying for justice and equality and that love will triumph over hate,” Snyder said.