General Assembly backgrounder: civil unions and marriage
Changing definition of marriage, revoking or issuing new constitutional interpretation on the agenda in Detroit
May 29, 2014
The 221st General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) ― June 14-21 in Detroit ― will once again consider the definition and constitutional interpretation of marriage.
At issue is W-4.9001 of the denomination’s Book of Order, or constitution, which states: “marriage is a gift God has given to all humankind for the well-being of the entire human family. Marriage is a civil contract between a woman and a man. For Christians, marriage is a covenant through which a man and a woman are called to live out together before God their lives of discipleship. In a service of Christian marriage, a lifelong commitment is made by a woman and a man to each other, publicly witnessed and acknowledged by the community of faith.”
The 2010 General Assembly, in approving the final report of its Special Committee to Study Issues of Civil Union and Christian Marriage, posed the over-arching question: “How do we extend the grace of God to all, calling all persons to repentance, transformation, and discipleship — regardless of sexual orientation — so that all will experience God’s gracious intention for humanity?”
Since then, the U.S. Supreme Court Supreme Court in 2013 struck down Section Three of the federal Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), essentially extending federal marriage benefits to gay couples legally married in their states, regardless of where they choose to reside.
Nineteen states currently have legal same-sex marriage: eight by court decision, eight by state legislative action and three by popular vote.
In this increasingly complex context, the 2012 General Assembly voted to neither reaffirm or change the PC(USA)’s definition of marriage, but asked the whole church to engage in a two-year period of “serious study and discernment” regarding Christian marriage.
Seven overtures (resolutions) on the subject will be considered in Detroit:
- 10-01, from Lehigh Presbytery, would amend the constitution by changing “marriage” to “Blessing of Christian Covenant” and leave legal marriage to civil authorities rather than ministers.
- 10-02, from Cascades Presbytery (with 19 concurrences from other presbyteries), would amend the constitution by changing the definition of marriage from “a man and a woman” to “two people.”
- 10-03 from Heartland Presbytery and10-04 from East Iowa Presbytery would issue a new authoritative interpretation of the constitution affirming pastoral discretion to perform same-sex marriage in jurisdictions where they are legal.
- 10-05, from Midwest Hanmi Presbytery, would preserve the traditional definition of marriage but would add a clause to W-4.9001to allow presbyteries and sessions “to define marriage as a civil contract between two persons within the boundary of state law.”
- 10-06, from New Castle Presbytery, would rescind an authoritative interpretation of the constitution by the 1991 General Assembly that stated that “if a session considered a same-sex ceremony to be the equivalent of marriage it would not be sanctioned…” and barred sessions from allowing their facilities to be used for such ceremonies.
- 10-07, from Eastern Korean Presbytery, calls for creation of a task force to “identify common ground and reconcilable differences” around the issue of same-sex marriage and report back to the 2018 General Assembly.
Matters related to same-sex marriage will be considered by Assembly Committee 10 — Civil Union and Marriage Issues. Jerry L. Van Marter of Presbyterian News Service will be covering Committee 10 for the General Assembly Communication Center.