VERMONT -- When the United Church of Christ became the first mainline Christian denomination to officially endorse "full marriage equality" for all people regardless of gender, the move was more than just a spiritual affirmation of same-sex unions for the church's 1.3 million members. It was seen as a decisive statement against the growing political hostility toward gays and lesbians in America.
But an informal survey of Vermont houses of worship reveals that in the five years since the civil-union law took effect, many clergy still find themselves at odds with their national organizations over the issue. And some say the chasm is growing wider.
Where do Vermont's various religious sects stand on gay marriage? With about 150,000 adherents, the Catholic Church is Vermont's largest Christian denomination, according to the American Religion Data Archive. The Catholic Church remains ardently opposed to gay marriage, and that position appears unlikely to change anytime soon.
The United Church of Christ is Vermont's second-largest denomination. The UCC has nearly 22,000 members and 154 churches statewide. Nineteen of them were already considered "open and affirming." That is, their ministers perform and bless civil unions. The July 4 resolution endorsing marital equality was not a radical departure from the UCC's history of social reform; it was among the first churches to openly oppose slavery and the first to ordain women.
But Vermont's third-largest denomination, the United Methodist Church, remains at odds with its national organization on the issue. Richard Hibbert, pastor of the First United Methodist Church of Burlington, explains that the church's official stance is decided by its General Conference, which convenes once every four years. In 2004, as in earlier years, there were demonstrations protesting the church's opposition to homosexuality and gay marriage. Lately, though, Hibbert says, the anti-gay majority appears to be gaining strength and becoming more entrenched.
"The hardest thing about this is, the more we talk about it, the worse our position gets," says Hibbert. "We are really, really divided about it and it's unfortunate, because the Methodist Church has always been fairly progressive on most issues. But when it comes to homosexuality, we are really struggling."
The Troy Annual Conference, which governs Methodist churches in Vermont and northeastern New York, is on record as a "reconciling congregation," meaning that it supports the civil rights of all persons, regardless of their sexual orientation. Hibbert, himself a reconciling pastor, is not allowed to perform civil unions; doing so could mean being brought up on charges and stripped of his order.
The Episcopal Church is Vermont's fourth-largest religion, with 50 congregations and about 9000 adherents. It waged a high-profile debate about the role of gays and lesbians in the church after the 2003 appointment in New Hampshire of Gene Robinson as its first openly gay bishop. That schism did little to resolve the question of same-gender unions.
Currently, the Episcopal canons still define marriage as "a relationship between one man and one woman," says Bishop Thomas Ely of the Episcopal Diocese of Vermont. However, after Vermont legalized civil unions, Episcopal priests were granted authority to perform those ceremonies, too. But because the national church has not authorized a liturgy for same-sex unions, the Vermont diocese produced a "pastoral resource" for blessing them. Those blessings cannot be used in Massachusetts, where gay marriage has been legalized. As Ely notes, "It's a very delicate and nuanced situation right now."
Judaism, Vermont's sixth-largest faith, largely endorses gay and lesbian civil rights, though the religion is still divided on the issue. The Committee on Jewish Laws and Standards, the national body governing Conservative Jewish rabbis, has not sanctioned same-sex marriages, but the Central Conference of American Rabbis, which governs Reform rabbis, has endorsed the practice.
Yitzchok Raskin is the rabbi at Burlington's Chabad Lubavitch of Vermont, which adheres to a strict interpretation of the Jewish Holy Scriptures. Although he will not perform civil unions, he emphasizes, "We're not for discrimination. God forbid!"
In contrast, the city's Conservative synagogue, Ohavi Zedek, Vermont's oldest and largest Jewish congregation with about 400 families, conducts religious same-sex marriages that the state recognizes as civil unions. In fact, Ohavi Zedek just hired a new associate rabbi who is gay and plans to marry his partner later this month.
"For me, the world of religion is not a world of ayatollahs and grand rabbis," Rabbi Joshua Chasan notes. "It's a place for the exercise of conscience." But he points out that a rabbi is less likely to get into trouble for marrying a same-sex couple than an interfaith one.
Other Vermont faiths are not at odds with their national bodies. Vermont's Unitarian Universalist ministers, for example, have long embraced gay marriages, or "services of union," as they call them. Civil unions are not performed in Vermont by the Greek Orthodox Church, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints or the Jehovah's Witnesses.
Vermont's only mosque, the Islamic Society of Vermont in Colchester, adheres to a strict reading of the Koran and won't perform civil unions. But the state's Buddhist temples, such as the Vermont Zen Center in Shelburne, will perform such ceremonies. According to Sensei Sunyana Graef of the Zen Center, gay marriage is not inconsistent with the Buddhist tradition. "All beings have a Buddha nature and thus are equally endowed with wisdom and virtue," she says. "Whether they are gay or not makes no difference."