- The Washington Times - Monday, July 31, 2000

BOULDER, Colo. The Episcopal Church's new policy on supporting and affirming committed relationships outside marriage comes a little late for Lee Ann Bryce.
Miss Bryce has filed state and federal lawsuits against the church's Colorado diocese for civil rights violations after she was fired last year from her part-time job as youth minister at St. Aidan's Episcopal Church here. Her dismissal came after she participated in a service of commitment with her partner, the Rev. Sara Smith.
The irony is that Miss Bryce, 40, isn't even an Episcopalian: She belongs to the United Church of Christ, which allows such unions. Even so, her case, believed to be the only one of its kind, exposes the tension in the Episcopal Church's tenuous compromise on homosexual "marriage" while raising questions on whether the courts can breach church autonomy in the name of civil rights.
Church officials argue that the issue has less to do with homosexuality than with the church's constitutional right to freedom of religion. Just as some denominations refuse to ordain women, the Episcopal Church has the right to reject non-celibate singles, whether heterosexual or homosexual, from the ministry.
Any court order interfering with that would be an infringement of the church's First Amendment rights, said the Right Rev. Jerry Winterrowd, bishop of the Colorado diocese, in a March 8 statement.
Legal actions such as these are not sacred conversation. They're not about faith. They're not about determining the church's correct teaching regarding human sexuality, Bishop Winterrowd said. Instead, these civil legal actions are about whether the government or the church gets to determine who will serve as a minister of the church.
As Miss Bryce tells it, those who hired her for the job at St. Aidan's in July 1997 asked no questions about her sexual preference. They knew she had no formal ministerial training or education, and when she told them she was a UCC member, it was like, oh, great, you're ecumenical, she said.
Her job consisted mainly of arranging activities for the church's teen-agers, such as picnics, swimming parties and charity work. She insists she offered no instruction on Scriptures or Episcopal Church doctrines.
At the time, Miss Bryce was living with Miss Smith, an ordained UCC minister. In November 1998, they held a commitment service at the First Congregational Church in Boulder, an elaborate ceremony attended by 450 friends, including parishioners from the St. Aidan's congregation. The associate rector even participated in the service by leading a prayer of support.
When St. Aidan's rector, the Rev. Don Henderson, learned of the ceremony, however, he informed Miss Bryce that she had violated the church's doctrine that requires ministers to remain single and chaste, or married and faithful. He gave her a choice: either renounce her relationship with Miss Smith or face dismissal.
Miss Bryce, who had moved from Texas to Colorado to live with Miss Smith, refused to budge.
"[Church officials] said I wasn't a good role model for youth," said Miss Bryce. "It just enforced the stereotype that gay people are harmful to kids. But it wasn't easy because I didn't have a job, and I had left a great job in Texas."
In February and March 1999, the church held four educational meetings on the issue, called sacred conversations. The meetings were designed to offer information and hear comments from parishioners on the situation. Miss Bryce says they disintegrated into a public inquisition.
"One woman said, 'I think gay people are great, but what I don't understand is why they want to work in our church,' " recalled Miss Bryce. "Another asked, 'When did you start having sex with Sara?' It was terrible. They were talking about private, intimate stuff."
Her firing came as a shock to many in the parish because of the Episcopal Church's liberal views on such issues as homosexuality.
At its General Convention in Denver earlier this month, the Episcopal Church approved a policy of support and affirmation for committed same-sex couples, the only mainline church to take that step. At least three non-mainline denominations UCC, Unitarian Universalist and Reform Jews have approved union ceremonies for homosexuals.
Patricia Bangert, Miss Bryce's attorney, argues that the Episcopal Church is guilty of religious discrimination for refusing to recognize the UCC-sanctioned ceremony.
"To a UCC member, having a holy union is like a marriage ceremony. It's taken quite seriously," said Miss Bangert.
Miss Smith speculates that because Miss Bryce was a UCC member and not an Episcopalian, officials at St. Aidan's concluded it would be easier to fire her than defend her.
"She wasn't Episcopalian, so she was expendable," said Miss Smith. "She was a youth minister, and in the church hierarchy, secretaries are above youth ministers. They thought it was a way to make statement without any fallout."
Miss Bryce is now attending seminary at the Iliff School of Theology in Denver and has raised thousands for her legal defense at fund-raisers and was a featured speaker at the July 4 protest rally outside the Episcopal General Convention.
A hearing on the Colorado diocese's motion to dismiss the case is scheduled for federal court in September.

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