Church Board Backs Same-Sex Ceremonies

The Board of Ministry recommended to Minister in the Memorial Church Peter J. Gomes that he allow same-sex blessing ceremonies within the church in accordance with the University's non-discrimination policy.

Gomes, also the Plummer professor of Christian morals, is now consulting with President Neil L. Rudenstine about the final decision. Gomes, who was not available for comment, has not performed a commitment ceremony in the church to date despite requests, citing a lack of established policy.

"We have had no response from [Rudenstine] as of yet," said Reverend Thomas Mikelson, president of the Board of Ministry, which issued the recommendation on May 21. Only the Board of Overseers can overrule a decision made by Rudenstine.

The question of Memorial Church's policy as a non-denominational campus house of worship was raised at the Board of Ministry's November meeting, after a Crimson article described a couple who had requested a same-sex blessing ceremony and been turned away.

At a second meeting of the Board of Ministry in February, a task force of three Board members was appointed to examine the issue and return a report.

The task force included Rev. Thomas B. Chittick, president of United Ministry and minister of University Lutheran Church; Rev. Richard N. Chrisman, associate minister of Old South Church in Boston, and Mikelson, who is also pastor of First Church in Cambridge.

Mikelson said the Board released a list of recommendations in favor of holding commitment ceremonies in Memorial Church to both Rudenstine and the ministers of the church, including Associate Minis- ter Janet Hatfield Legro and Gomes.

Mikelson refused to comment on the content of the Board's recommendations.

"Peter [Gomes] needed outside advice and was very delighted with what resulted," said Chittick, who added that the task force investigation was highly effective.

Chrisman said the task force recommendations rely heavily on the University's non-discrimination policy.

"[The recommendation] is simply that Memorial Church offer the same non-discriminatory hospitality that the University offers," Chrisman said.

Chrisman said the decision now rests with Gomes but that Gomes will consult with Rudenstine before instituting any policy.

"My impression is that Gomes has the perogative. Our conversations were very productive," Chrisman said. "We did a lot of work internal to the Board."

Same-sex commitment ceremonies have been performed at Stanford and Brown Universities since 1991, and are also performed at Princeton and Yale although not incorporated into University policy.

While Governor William F. Weld '66 ordered the state to recognize same-sex marriages in other states earlier this year, same-sex marriage is not legal in Massachusetts. Religious blessing or commitment ceremonies of the type requested by the same-sex couple, which are not subject to government regulation, are already performed in many area churches.

If the University does decide to allow same-sex commitment ceremonies in Memorial Church, it will fulfill not only the Board's recommendations but also those made by the Undergraduate Council and the Harvard Gay and Lesbian Caucus earlier this year.

The Harvard Gay and Lesbian Caucus, an organization composed of University alumni, faculty and staff, released a letter in April calling for commitment ceremonies to be held in Memorial Church. Caucus chair Robert Mack pegged membership at about 1,900 and said the organization stands behind the recommendation.

"We sent information to the Board concerning both campus churches that do perform the ceremonies and the format of those ceremonies," Mack said. "We have followed the process weekly since February and have been satisfied to the present time that the [Board] is on track," he said.

Mack said the Caucus will remain in close contact with the Board and that, should the process be stifled, the organization will mobilize to forward their cause.

"We are prepared to take action if called to do so," Mack said.

On January 12, the Undergraduate Council passed a resolution by a vote of 34 to six urging Memorial Church to allow same sex commitment ceremonies for lesbian and gay couples.

The resolution alleged that failure to do so would violate the University's non-discrimination policy, which includes sexual orientation as a potential discriminatory characteristic.

Students on both sides of the issue have been vocal. Former council member John J. Applebaum '97 was one of the votes against the resolution in the Undergraduate Council.

"The office of the president is part of a long tradition," Appelbaum said yesterday. "I can't think of a greater affront to that tradition than the thought of two men getting their union sanctified in Memorial Church."

The interdenominational Board of Ministry includes Chittick, Chrisman, Gomes, Mikelson, Rabbi Sally Finestone, Father George Salzman, University Marshall Richard Hunt, Samuel T. Lloyd III of Trinity Church, Boston, and Rev. Victor H. Kazanjian Jr., Dean of Religious Life and the Chaplaincy at Wellesley College