- Associated Press - Wednesday, January 9, 2013

WASHINGTON — The Washington National Cathedral, where the nation gathers to mourn tragedies and celebrate new presidents, will soon begin hosting same-sex marriages.

Cathedral officials say the church will be among the first Episcopal congregations to implement a new rite of marriage for gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender members. The church announced its new policy Wednesday.

As the nation’s most prominent church, the decision carries huge symbolism. The 106-year-old cathedral has long been a spiritual center for the nation, hosting presidential inaugural services and funerals for Ronald Reagan and Gerald Ford. The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his last sermon there in 1968. The cathedral draws hundreds of thousands of visitors each year.

In light of the legality of same-sex marriage in the District and now Maryland, the Rt. Rev. Mariann Edgar Budde, the Episcopal bishop of Washington, decided in December to allow an expansion of the Christian marriage sacrament. The diocese covers the District and four counties in Maryland. The change is allowed under a “local option” granted by the church’s General Convention, church leaders said. Each priest in the diocese can then decide whether to perform same-sex unions.

The Human Rights Campaign, the nation’s largest gay rights group, applauded the cathedral’s change Wednesday as a milestone.

“Today, the church sent a simple but powerful message to LGBT Episcopalians — you are loved just the way you are, and for that we embrace you,” said the Rev. MacArthur Flournoy, the deputy director of HRC’s religion and faith program.

The conservative National Organization for Marriage, which opposes same-sex marriage, said the cathedral’s change was “disappointing but not surprising,” given the direction of the Episcopal Church.

“The message here is that conservative Episcopalians are being pushed out,” said spokesman Thomas Peters.

Gay weddings will be allowed immediately. But it will likely be six months to a year before the first marriages are performed due to the cathedral’s busy schedule and its pre-marital counseling requirement. Generally, only couples affiliated with the cathedral will be eligible. Church leaders had not received any requests for weddings ahead of Wednesday’s announcement.

The New York-based Episcopal Church is the U.S. body of the 77 million-member Anglican Communion. The House of Bishops voted last year 111-41 to authorize a provisional rite for same-sex unions. Some congregations have left the church over its inclusion of gays and lesbians over the years.

Same-sex marriage is now legal in nine states and the District. Legislators in Illinois and Rhode Island are set to take up bills to possibly join them, and the Supreme Court is scheduled to hear cases on gay marriage in March.