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Deciding who says 'I Do'

(Daily Republic photo illustration)

One man, one woman.

That has been the traditional view of marriage for centuries. But on June 26, gay rights supporters across the nation celebrated when the United States Supreme Court ruled that same-sex couples can marry in all 50 states.

In Mitchell, most churches surveyed by The Daily Republic remain opposed to same-sex marriage, citing the Bible as the basis of their opposition.

"We're just taking the Bible's stand," said Rev. Carroll Torberson, of Grace Baptist Church. "We don't plan to change what we believe, just because society is changing the direction they're going—in anything, actually."

For Rev. Kristi McLaughlin, the Supreme Court ruling was essentially a formality.

McLaughlin pastors Anew United Church of Christ, which she describes as a "progressive community of Jesus followers in Mitchell." She said she and her congregation held blessing ceremonies for same-sex couples even before the June ruling.

"Obviously, they weren't legal," McLaughlin said of the relationships, referencing South Dakota's ban on same-sex marriage.

Now that the Supreme Court has ruled states cannot ban same-sex marriage, McLaughlin said it affirms her practice.

"We believe, in my congregation as well, that God loves everybody and that God wishes everybody to find somebody they love and publicly state that love ... regardless of sexual orientation," she said. "To be honest, if God created everybody, then God's pretty creative."

As the nation nears the four-month anniversary of the ruling, strong feelings still persist on all sides of the issue. Some, like McLaughlin, celebrate the ruling, calling it a long-awaited victory for equality. Others, particularly in the conservative religious community, say the state has no sway over biblical truths.

Starting in August, The Daily Republic attempted to contact 35 churches in Mitchell. Of those 35 churches, 15 local pastors said they will not perform same-sex marriages in their churches. Four pastors deferred to statements made by their denominations, which do not allow same-sex unions, for a total of 19 churches in Mitchell that will not perform same-sex marriages. Three churches declined to comment on the issue; two said yes, their churches will perform same-sex marriages; and one pastor said she personally is willing to perform same-sex marriages, but her congregation has not taken an official position. The remaining 10 churches were unavailable or did not respond to requests for comment.

A landmark decision

On June 26, the United States Supreme Court ruled 5-4 that same-sex couples can marry in all 50 states. In the court's landmark decision, Obergefell v. Hodges, Justice Anthony M. Kennedy wrote for the majority describing marriage as a "fundamental right" for everyone, including same-sex couples.

"No union is more profound than marriage, for it embodies the highest ideals of love, fidelity, devotion, sacrifice, and family," Kennedy wrote. "As some of the petitioners in these cases demonstrate, marriage embodies a love that may endure even past death. It would misunderstand these men and women to say they disrespect the idea of marriage. Their plea is that they do respect it, respect it so deeply that they seek to find its fulfillment for themselves."

In his argument, Kennedy wrote that marriage is an inherent, fundamental right for all people, including same-sex couples. He cited the Due Process and Equal Protection Clauses of the Fourteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

"No longer may this liberty be denied to them," he wrote.

Kennedy continued in his argument that the state attaches significance to marriage, making it "all the more precious," referencing benefits couples receive in regard to monetary benefits like reduced inheritance taxes if a spouse dies or compensation if a spouse dies from a work-related injury. Excluding same-sex couples from what Kennedy describes as that status sends a message that gays and lesbians are unequal "in important respects."

"It demeans gays and lesbians for the State to lock them out of a central institution of the Nation's society," Kennedy wrote. "Same-sex couples, too, may aspire to the transcendent purposes of marriage and seek fulfillment in its highest meaning."

Kennedy wrote that the sweeping decision also ends the often messy question of handling same-sex marriage across state lines, saying there is "no lawful basis for a State to refuse to recognize a lawful same-sex marriage performed in another State on the ground of its same-sex character."

Prior to the June 26 decision, there were 37 states (and the District of Columbia) that had legalized same-sex marriage. That left 13 states, including South Dakota, that did not recognize same-sex marriages.

Kennedy quoted another opinion, Williams v. North Carolina, which describes being legally considered married in one state but not another as a "perplexing and distressing complication."

"Leaving the current state of affairs in place would maintain and promote instability and uncertainty," he wrote. "For some couples, even an ordinary drive into a neighboring State to visit family or friends risks causing severe hardship in the event of a spouse's hospitalization while across state lines."

'God defined it'

The ruling set off a firestorm of reactions across the nation, particularly in the states where same-sex marriage had not been legalized.

One of the most high-profile conflicts has been in Kentucky, where Rowan County Clerk Kim Davis refused to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples, saying it violated her Christian beliefs. Davis, 50, was jailed for five days, making Kentucky a focal point in the ongoing debate over gay marriage in the U.S.

Earlier this month, Kentucky Gov.-elect Matt Bevin, who takes office in December, said he will order changes to the state marriage license forms, removing county clerks' names from the forms. The move is meant to appease clerks who have objected to issuing licenses to same-sex couples.

Many evangelical Christians remain opposed to homosexuality, saying it violates God's will.

Four of Mitchell's larger churches—based on their reported average Sunday morning attendance—Mitchell Wesleyan Church (550 people), Northridge Baptist Church (400) and Zion Lutheran Church (350) and First United Methodist Church (300) say they will not perform same-sex marriages in their churches.

Rev. Keith Nash, senior pastor at Mitchell Wesleyan Church, said homosexuality and same-sex marriage run counter to biblical teaching throughout scripture. He listed passages in Leviticus, along with Romans 1 and several epistles—letters like Hebrews, Jude or James, written by the apostles.

"It's not just one passage, it's a variety of passages throughout the Bible," Nash said. "The whole idea of same-sex marriage runs counter to the principles laid out all the way through the Bible."

Beyond overt references to those listing homosexuality as a sin, though, Nash said the Bible clearly shows marriage as instituted by God to constitute one man and one woman.

"That's what constitutes marriage. God defined it," Nash said. "God established it as a gift from His hand."

Some argue that Old Testament texts condemning homosexuality, like those in Leviticus, are often grouped with other Levitical laws that most modern evangelicals no longer follow. Polygamy, for instance, features prominently in the Old Testament, critics say—so why is that no longer an acceptable behavior?

Nash countered those arguments by describing divine revelation throughout the Bible as a "moving target." For instance, he said the Bible could be misinterpreted as allowing for slavery.

"But any honest reader of the Bible would come to the conclusion as you read it, slavery is not something the Bible advocates. It's a terrible social sin," Nash said.

God revealed his principles over time, Nash said—including the subject of marriage and homosexuality.

He also counters the argument that people are born as homosexuals as a reason to condone it.

"I would suggest that I'm born with a tendency to commit lots of sins," he said. "That doesn't mean, just because I happen to like to throw temper tantrums, that is acceptable."

It's in keeping with the Wesleyan denomination, which has publicly stated it will not allow for same-sex marriage in its member churches.

Nash said the church's stance is not meant to polarize—it's simply meant to stay true to God's Word.

"We're not out gunning for controversy, by any means," Nash said. "But we do know that we have to be true to our conscience."

Path to conviction

Though many churches in Mitchell agree same-sex marriage is not biblically acceptable, each congregation's and denomination's path to that conclusion is different.

Some denominations decide what stance the churches under their umbrella will take.

The Rev. Ben Payne, head pastor of Northridge Baptist Church in Mitchell, said Northridge will not perform same-sex marriage ceremonies. That stance comes from the church's own statement of faith, and its conference at large, which he said has revisited the topic of same-sex marriage within the last five years.

To reach that decision, Payne said scholars from the church's conference underwent intensive study of every passage of scripture related to the issue of homosexuality. Based on that study, Payne said the conference believes God's Word does not condone same-sex relationships.

"Marriage biblically defined is between one man and one woman, no matter what the state says about it," he said.

However, Payne said, everyone is welcome at Northridge Baptist.

"We are more than willing to be in Christlike relationships with people, no matter what their background is," he said. "We really want people to understand that they're not defined by sexuality, we're defined by our identity in Christ as children of God."

Most pastors surveyed by The Daily Republic provided similar responses. Some have had to "lovingly turn some away," even prior to the ruling; most have not.

Several emphasized, like Nash and Payne, that their stance on homosexuality is born of obedience to God's will, not malice or judgment toward anyone.

"It doesn't mean that we don't love them, we just feel marriage should be between male and female," said Rev. Nat Pinkerman, pastor of the Family Christian Center.

Some churches face consequences if they defy their denomination's decision. Rev. Kevin Carroll, pastor of Grace Reformed Church, which is part of the Reformed Church of the U.S., said a minister in his denomination who performs a same-sex marriage ceremony faces the loss of ordination. He described the Supreme Court's decision as a "whim" to redefine marriage, which he said is a construct provided for families.

"Ontologically speaking, by that I refer to the way things manifestly are, marriage is between a man and a woman. There are two sexes," he said. "One does not have to be religious at all to see that."

Others, like Torberson of Grace Baptist Church, put it more bluntly.

"It's an offense to God's plan, and totally against nature," Torberson said of same-sex relationships. "God made the male and female, and He said a man should leave his father and mother and cleave to his wife. It's so clear in the Bible."

Some denominations, like the Presbyterian church, have left the decision up to individual churches.

Rev. Rebecca Gresham-Kesner, pastor of First Presbyterian Church, said the Presbyterian denomination nationally has voted to allow same-sex marriage. She said the church's Book of Order was changed in July to say that marriage is between two people, traditionally a man and a woman.

However, Gresham-Kesner said not all churches support that stance—so they get to make the decision themselves. She said while she personally supports the change to the Book of Order, her congregation has not taken an official stance on it.

"We have that space within our denomination to disagree, which I love," she said.

Whether same-sex marriages can be performed in the church building is up to local church leaders, she said. Whether she performs a ceremony for a same-sex couple is up to her; however, she said if her congregation is uncomfortable with condoning same-sex marriage, she respects that.

"I am comfortable performing them. But I'm also bound to the church leadership," she said. "I am not shy about telling people where I stand, but I don't view it as my job to change people's opinions, and I want to respect their beliefs."

"My rule of thumb is what I call the rule of love," she said. "How I treat people should demonstrate love."

'To be fully human'

Only two local pastors said they will definitely perform same-sex marriage ceremonies in their local churches: Anew United Church of Christ and the Congregational United Church of Christ. Anew and the Congregational UCC used to be one church and split about three years ago.

The Rev. Suzanne Burris, head pastor of Congregational United Church of Christ, echoed many of McLaughlin's statements. She said the church voted in 2011 to become an "open and affirming church," which includes recognition of same-sex couples. Burris described the vote as a type of designation within the United Church of Christ that the Congregational UCC has gone through a period of self-study, and decided "we will welcome anybody."

Burris, like McLaughlin, had performed ceremonies for same-sex couples before the June ruling.

"I have performed same-sex marriage, and we are delighted that one couple that was not legal is now legal," she said.

Now that one union, in particular, is recognized, Burris said it will allow that couple to pursue a joint adoption.

Support for same-sex marriage is in keeping with the ideals of Anew. The church is attended by what McLaughlin describes as a "neat group of about 35 people." There is no membership program, she said—just people who want to be part of a community that is "real and authentic."

"If you come and want to be a part of us, you're a part of us," she said. "We work to love you, and we ask the same thing."

Seemingly in a minority of pastors in Mitchell who endorse same-sex marriage, McLaughlin said her stance has drawn ire from her fellow clergy members. In February 2011, The Daily Republic published an opinion piece authored by McLaughlin in favor of gay rights and same-sex relationships. She said the backlash was strong and swift.

"After my editorial came out, I have been called by my clergy peers in Mitchell the antichrist, I have been told that I'm not a Christian. I have been told that I'm a wolf in sheep's clothing," she said. "There's many people who believe that I'm not a Christian ... not only due to my belief on equality, but on many issues."

But McLaughlin said it's her faith that has helped her weather those accusations, and she no longer takes them to heart.

"I'm not living my life for my clergy peers or other Christians. I'm living my life to learn how to love and be accepting and as generous as I can for all people," she said. "My understanding of Jesus is that Jesus gave us this idea of being fully human. To be fully human means we have to fully love."

'People of faith, hope and love'

Hugely influential in matters of religious import, the Catholic Church, also known as the Roman Catholic Church, has more than 1.25 billion members worldwide.

Long a bulwark for conservative ideals, the Church's stance on same-sex marriage has remained unchanged, with the pope affirming the ideal of marriage belonging to one man and one woman.

Mitchell has two Catholic churches, Holy Family and Holy Spirit. Rev. Shane Stevens did not immediately return calls for comment, and Rev. Michael Schneider deferred comment to the Sioux Falls diocese, of which Mitchell's Catholic churches are a part.

The Most Rev. Paul Swain, bishop of the Diocese of Sioux Falls, addressed the Obergefell v. Hodges decision directly, describing it as a "sad development" and "harmful to the common good."

In a statement issued same day the Supreme Court's decision was announced, Swain said he stands with similar statements made by the Most Rev. Joseph E. Kurtz, archbishop of Louisville and president of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops.

"I also fully concur in his call to be people of faith, hope and love," Swain wrote. "Faith in the unchanging truth of marriage as God intended; hope that this truth will once again prevail in our society; and love of all our neighbors even those who disagree or punish us for our faith and moral convictions."

That stance trickles down from the Vatican, and has remained unchanged despite the Church's perceived softening on other social issues. Since his election in 2013, Pope Francis has stressed that the Church should be open to change, side with the poor and rid itself of the pomp and stuffiness that has alienated many Catholics.

In July 2013, Pope Francis made headlines for telling reporters, "If someone is gay and is searching for the Lord and has good will, then who am I to judge him?"

However, he still holds to the Church's traditional stance on same-sex marriage. In October, the pope presided over a three-week gathering of bishops, referred to as a synod. The final synod document, among other things, restated Church teachings that gays should not suffer discrimination, but repeated there is "no foundation whatsoever" for same-sex marriage.

Mormon policy draws strong response

Other denominations have taken a public stance on the issue, as well. One of the most recent was the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints' policy that added same-sex marriage to acts considered to be a renunciation of the Mormon faith and thus subject to church discipline, including excommunication.

A representative of the LDS church in Mitchell said the local church does not perform same-sex marriages, in keeping with the Mormon Church.

The Church's new policy, announced earlier this month, bars children of gay married couples from being baptized in the faith until they turn 18, leave their parents' home and disavow same-sex marriage or cohabitation.

Church leaders later added that withholding of baptism would apply only to children whose primary residence was with a same-sex couple.

The provisions do not curtail the membership activities of children who have already been baptized.

In response to the policy, about 1,500 Latter-day Saints resigned from the Mormon Church in protest. The Church has more than 15 million adherents and 85,000 missionaries globally.

"It is difficult for people to leave the Church. It takes people a long time to make this decision. It is a well-thought-out one and it is not taken lightly," said Brooke Swallow, one of the organizers of a recent protest.

The Church said this year it would support laws protecting gays and lesbians from discrimination in housing and employment. But Mormon leaders have said sex should only happen between a married couple, and they cannot sanction same-sex marriage.

A Church spokesman said: "We don't want to see anyone leave the Church, especially people who have been struggling with any aspect of their life."