Gay employees of the United Methodist Church can now claim benefits for their spouses, the church's highest judicial board recently decided, but they still will have to find another church if they want to get married.
The term "spouse" now includes "same sex" for church employees working in one of the 17 states where gay marriage is legal. The decision includes legally recognized civil unions and domestic partnerships for homosexual and heterosexual couples.
In just one sign of how mainstream denominations are struggling to keep up with fast-evolving social attitudes toward same-sex marriage, the church's policy requires each employee claiming spousal benefits to work for one of its 13 governing agencies.
The United Methodist Church does not recognize gay marriage, but the church's Judicial Council stated that "certain basic human rights and civil liberties are due all persons."
"We see a clear issue of simple justice in protecting the rightful claims when people have shared material resources, pensions, guardian relationships, mutual powers of attorney, and other such lawful claims typically attendant to contractual relationship that involved shared contributions, responsibilities, and liabilities, and equal protection before the law," the board stated.
The change was proposed in October by the church's financial board, but officially approved last week by the church's judicial court and first reported by the Religion News Service.
"I think it's a very good decision," said Chett Pritchett, executive director of Methodist Federation for Social Action. "This affirms what the United Methodist Church has always said about equal rights for everybody regardless of sexual orientation or gender identification. In some ways this is just kind of putting our statements into practice."
Sharon Dean, spokeswoman for the church's General Council of Finance and Administration, said there's no way to tell how many same-sex couples sign up for benefits because the church only asks about marital status, not the gender of an employee's spouse.
Figures from 2012 put church membership in the United States at nearly 7.4 million people, and 12.5 million members worldwide.
Church leaders on both sides of the gay marriage issue said they support health care for all, but the decision's impact on the divisive issue remains to be seen.
The Rev. Maxie Dunnam, pastor emeritus and director of Christ Church Global, said the United Methodist Church might not recognize gay marriage, but neither did the judicial board's ruling violate church discipline.
"I don't think what they're doing supports same sex marriage," Mr. Dunnam said. "I think [board members] saw themselves as being responsible in terms of honoring civil rights of persons granted under law.
John S. A. Lomperis, United Methodist director at the Institute on Religion and Democracy, said the board's decision does not change its official position on marriage, but he expressed displeasure with how the decision was reached.
"It was just a small group of people, dealing with finances, laws, thinking very narrowly in terms of dollars and sense," Mr. Lomperis said. "They're not doing much thinking about faithfulness and ethics."
In recent years, the church has seen a division among its congregations and clergy over gay marriage.
Last year, the church made headlines for defrocking several pastors for advocating same-sex marriage, while some conservative congregations have left the main church to adhere to more traditional disciplines.
Mr. Lomperis said at the local level, the board's decision paves the way for "funds [to be] drained from offering plates to subsidize lifestyles that churches believe and the denomination as a whole [believes] are sinful."
"It piles on one more major thing to what's literally tearing the religion apart," he said.
That rending of the faith is what the Rev. Rob Renfroe, president of Good News, said is the biggest concern right now within the church.
The judicial board's ruling might seem like a huge deal, he said, but "it's a rather small event" compared to other issues.
"Here's the dilemma: We want everybody to have access to health care, we believe all civil rights should be respected and honored," Mr. Renfroe said. "Now what's more going on here is a constant progressive campaign to change how the church and culture views marriage and same sex relations."
Mr. Pritchett said he hopes the ruling will lead to "more meaningful discussions about LGBT people who are part of the church.
"I think it points to the fact you can't say there are no gay people in our church," he said. "I think that for those whom this is seen as The issue of the church, it'll provide a little bit of firepower to their claim. I don't see this as The issue of the church, the church can never be a single issue church."
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