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Same-Sex Marriage Ruling Could Affect Mem. Church Policy

News Analysis

By Molly Hennessy-fiske

This month's decision by a Hawaiian judge to legalize gay marriages throws a monkey wrench into the already controversial debate over whether Harvard's Memorial Church should perform same-sex commitment ceremonies.

The ruling grants gays and lesbians the right to enjoy the benefits of state-sanctioned civil marriage, including health-care, insurance and adoption privileges--and the right to be married in a civil ceremony.

The ruling is expected to be a major consideration for some members of the clergy, including Minister in the Memorial Church Peter J. Gomes, who has asserted that same-sex marriage ceremonies in Memorial Church would be illegal, since all marriages require a license to be recognized.

Gomes, who is also Plummer professor of Christian morals, and the rest of the Board of Ministry will meet in February to discuss commitment ceremonies in Memorial Church, and the Hawaii ruling is likely to be a key factor in the debate.

"It's bound to be in the background," said board member Reverend Thomas J. Mikelson of First Parish-Unitarian Universalist Church in Cambridge. "I can't say how it will effect our consideration of the issue, but it will definitely be taken into account."

Although the ruling affects the debate at Harvard, more legal tangles will have to occur before same-sex marriages become legal in Massachusetts, Mikelson said.

"There's definitely going to be a lot of activity in the [Massachusetts] courts," he added, "but it has to go to the Supreme Court for a final decision, to clarify the issue and to see where the sovereignty of the individual states lies."

Gov. William F. Weld '66 last week declared his support of the ruling, in what some see as a precursor to legalized gay marriages in Massachusetts.

And Mikelson said the outcome of the debate may well hinge on whether Massachusetts formally adopts a position on same-sex marriages. "If we see an act of the [state] legislature between now and [the Board of Ministry meeting] in February, Peter [Gomes] and the rest of the Board will take that into account."

Catholic Deacon Jacqueline L. Landry agreed, but expressed doubt that the board will create a formal Harvard policy in February, given the current uncertainty surrounding the issue.

"I have a feeling they won't because they tend to go by the [state] statutes of Massachusetts," Landry said.

Even if the Board of Ministry does elect to permit same-sex marriages in Memorial Church, it cannot compel individual ministers or congregations to sanction them.

"The state can't mandate the church to conduct them, since it isn't subject to civil law," said Landry. For gays who see marriage as an attractive option, the issue may become a matter of faith and not law.

"The University's position is that it's up to the clergy whether or not to perform same-sex marriages," University counsel Allan A. Ryan Jr. said. "There's no one in the University eager to determine the validity of marriages performed in Memorial Church."

Ryan said civil-rights and discrimination complaints could be filed over the church's current policy, but that the legal murkiness surrounding the issue would make the success of such a suit uncertain.

"Individuals can also sue for racial discrimination," Ryan said, "and I'm not sure that being refused a same-sex ceremony is the same thing. The issue has to be closely examined and a policy should be formulated."

Conservatives in the U.S. have sought to prevent same-sex marriages through legislation, such as the Defense of Marriage Act. Signed into law by President Clinton earlier this year, the act gives states the right to refuse to recognize same-sex marriages performed in other states.

The constitutionality of that act, however, is likely to be challenged because the Constitution compels states to recognize the "public acts, records and proceedings of other states," Ryan said.

Until the issue reaches the Supreme Court, the legal state of gay marriage in Massachusetts rests with the governor and legislature. Mikelson said that even with the governor's support, same-sex marriages in Massachusetts face a lot more hurdles.

"Weld has been good on the issue and he has a thoroughly Democratic legislature to work with," said Mikelson. "But a lot of those Democrats are from conservative suburban districts and they will resist this.

Conservatives in the U.S. have sought to prevent same-sex marriages through legislation, such as the Defense of Marriage Act. Signed into law by President Clinton earlier this year, the act gives states the right to refuse to recognize same-sex marriages performed in other states.

The constitutionality of that act, however, is likely to be challenged because the Constitution compels states to recognize the "public acts, records and proceedings of other states," Ryan said.

Until the issue reaches the Supreme Court, the legal state of gay marriage in Massachusetts rests with the governor and legislature. Mikelson said that even with the governor's support, same-sex marriages in Massachusetts face a lot more hurdles.

"Weld has been good on the issue and he has a thoroughly Democratic legislature to work with," said Mikelson. "But a lot of those Democrats are from conservative suburban districts and they will resist this.

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