Church leaders in Vermont divided over issue of gay marriages

February 18, 2000

The prospect that Vermont will approve same-sex marriage is exposing a deep rift among the state's religious leaders.

In testimony before the House Judiciary Committee, Roman Catholic Bishop Kenneth Angell said, "Today in Vermont the sacredness of marriage and the family as ordered by God is in jeopardy, and those who honor that sanctity are called to defend it with courage and conviction." Episcopal Bishop Mary Adelia McLeod countered by arguing in favor of gay unions. "Such action will serve to strengthen [the state's] social fabric and is not a threat to traditional marriage," she said.

The committee has shown some reluctance to deal with the implicit moral issues in the debate, provoked by the Vermont Supreme Court's ruling that found that the exclusion of gay and lesbian couples from the rights and benefits of marriage is unconstitutional. The court told the legislature that it could provide those benefits either by modifying the statutes on marriage or through a domestic partnership provision.

Angell said that he was praying for the lawmakers, pointing out that there was no way that the Roman Catholic Church could accept marriage between couples of the same sex or a domestic partnership system. His viewpoint was supported by other religious leaders. The Rev. Craig Bensen of the Burlington Area Evangelical Association, for example, denounced homosexuals and suggested that a 12-step program like the one used in Alcoholics Anonymous might cure them.

But Rabbi Michael Cohen of Manchester told lawmakers that they had an opportunity to seize history and advance the cause of civil rights, that they could make a difference in the lives of lesbians and gay men who endure hostility. "You have an opportunity to change that social climate, to do something great," he said.

United Methodist Bishop Susan Morrison and Rabbi Joshua Chasan and 14 other colleagues joined McLeod in endorsing gay marriage. "I live a traditional Jewish life and I know in my heart of hearts that homosexuality is as righteous as heterosexuality," Chasan said. "I'd be an utter fraud, especially after the Supreme Court decision, if I didn't make plain my view that to deny the right of marriage to homosexuals is a sin."

Time for emancipation

In a separate statement signed by 95 clergy from Vermont, the religious leaders said that they "believe that marriage can only be strengthened by extending our understanding of marriage to include the faithful committed relationships of same-gender couples... We believe that human beings are called to live in right relationship with each other and with God. Therefore legalizing marriage for same-gender couples will build community, support the well-being of children and families, and promote the common good."

McLeod also sent an article, "Let the church be the first to issue an Emancipation Proclamation," to every church in the diocese, instructing them to read it during a Sunday worship service. In it she reminded the diocese that she believes that "homosexual persons choosing to live together in a life-long union are not committing a sin." In the diversity of God's creation, "God's great gift of love and expressing that love cannot and should not be denied for those among us who happen to be homosexual."

Using the Emancipation Proclamation, which granted slaves the right to marry, as an analogy, McLeod said, "It is time for Christians to issue our Emancipation Proclamation for our homosexual brothers and sisters."


--James Solheim is director of News and Information for the Episcopal Church.