Reverend Peter Buehler of the First Presbyterian Church of Santa Barbara will not marry gay and lesbian couples.
For Buehler, the matter is a religious one – an issue to be left to scripture, not legal documents. And in Santa Barbara, the good reverend is not alone.
The recent California Supreme Court decision to lift the statewide ban on gay marriage has clearly ruffled the right and thrown pundits into overdrive, but it has also left many local religious leaders with feelings of uncertainty. Legal issues aside, Buehler and other religious leaders remain personally conflicted about the moral implications of homosexual unions. While some support the court’s decision, others see it as the government tampering with what ought to be a purely spiritual issue.
Buehler said that regardless of how the Supreme Court voted on the issue – the decision was 4-3, by the way – from a religious standpoint, same-sex couples cannot be joined in holy matrimony.
“I fully support gay rights, but I can’t go so far as to say that a marriage between two gay people is a marriage,” Buehler said. “I respect folks that make an argument that gay marriage could be supported through the scriptures, but I’m just not there.”
Other leaders disagree. Bruce Wollenberg, the interim pastor of the Trinity Evangelical Lutheran Church in Santa Barbara, applauds the court’s decision, and thinks that the old laws were unfair. He said he emphasizes a loose interpretation of the Bible, and said the court’s decision upholds true justice.
“There are laws, and some laws need to be modified or overturned because they are unjustly discriminatory against certain citizens of the state,” Wollenberg said. “It is a good thing because the God that we know in the Bible is really interested in justice, and this is a matter of justice and freedom. Gay and lesbian people now have the freedom to love each other, and can have that love recognized by the state.”
However, Rev. Dr. Dennis Wayman of the Free Methodist Church of Santa Barbara rejects the court’s decision, and said he would also refuse to perform a same-sex marriage. Standing firm, the reverend argues that the concept of marriage is a religious one, and should not be changed.
“We wouldn’t [perform a same-sex marriage]. It wouldn’t be good for their spiritual life. I wouldn’t do something that harms someone,” Wayman said. “I have no problem with civil unions to deal with medical care and to pass down property, but [I prefer] to allow historic Christianity and Judaism define marriage.”
Wollenburg, however, refutes scriptural claims against homosexuality and gay marriage. He said the Bible did not adequately explore the subject of homosexuality, and that with modern science, society can now understand that homosexuality is not necessarily a spiritual choice, but a biological pre-determination.
“I don’t think the Bible knows anything about same-sex attraction like we know today,” Wollenberg said. “It was written in a time that homosexuality was not understood like it is today. It doesn’t mean that the Bible is wrong, just not helpful. … There are seven passages in the Bible [cited against homosexuality], and they can all be shown not to understand homosexuality in the way that we do today.”
Islamic leaders also have a strong opinion on the court’s decision. Amjad Abdelrahman of the Islamic Society of Santa Barbara said that he firmly opposes the decision. He said that gay marriage is preached against very clearly in Islamic teachings, and that when one accepts God, one must follow all of His guidelines.
“Religion as the belief system is not like culture; if I accept that this is God and the message is from God, I follow the [religious] guidelines,” Abdelrahman said.
According to Wollenberg, however, religion and science both ought to be represented in any conversation about what truly constitutes a marriage.
“Christian theology needs to be in conversation with science, so we can see science as a path to truth, just as the Bible is,” Wollenberg said. “They cannot oppose each other. We need to understand God’s spirit in the world from an evolutionary point of view.”
The religious community still has about three weeks to deliberate on the matter, but come June 17 the state of California will begin accepting same-sex marriages – regardless of what the scripture says.