The Rev. Dr. J. Bennett Guess
The Rev. Dr. J. Bennett Guess, guest columnist, is a United Church of Christ minister and activist in Cleveland.
I have been an ordained minister for more than 25 years, and I've presided at hundreds of weddings.
Once I served a church in northwestern Kentucky, near the borders of Indiana and Illinois. It was less expensive to get a marriage license in Kentucky, so many out-of-state couples flocked there, only to discover afterward that Kentucky requires its licenses be executed by an officiant legally bonded in the state.
My church sat near the courthouse, meaning that, if no judges were available, frustrated couples wandered our way, knocking in search of someone who could offer a quick ceremony and sign their paperwork.
My standard practice within the congregation was to require pre-marital counseling but, here on the church's doorstep, if I sensed sincerity in their relationship and predicament, and couldn't detect that binge-boozing was behind their mad rush to the altar, I occasionally tried to accommodate. Hospitality to strangers, after all, is a religious virtue.
The U.S. and Ohio Constitutions extend to all the free exercise of religion, meaning that, as a minister, the dictates of my religion -- alone -- necessitate what religious services I will provide and for whom. The same goes for every other minister, priest, rabbi or imam, be they conservative, moderate or liberal.
Over the years I've presided at weddings for church members, family, friends, even acquaintances of acquaintances. Many couples were Christian, or interreligious, but some were of no faith. I've turned down many requests, too -- for calendaring reasons, if I felt the couple needed more time, or if the church's values were being compromised. My standards, my decisions.
In 2004, after Ohio voters passed a constitutional amendment prohibiting same-gender marriages, I stood alongside hundreds of clergy, refusing to sign any license until all Ohioans had the right to marry the person they loved. That 11-year commitment made it difficult, at times, to tell dear friends that, yes, I could preside at their church ceremony, but, no, they would have to find someone else to do the legal part.
Again, that was my constitutional right, and that same right extends to clergy who refuse to marry same-sex couples.
Three times this month, the Ohio House has held committee hearings on the so-called "Pastor Protection Act" (HB 36), a bill purportedly designed to protect clergy and places of worship from performing marriages against their wishes. This is bogus legislation, designed to confront a non-existent problem, and a complete waste of taxpayers' money. Clergy already exercise unfettered discretion over marriage decisions.
So what's this legislation really about? There's no other answer: It's about protecting the falsehood, and perpetuating the stereotype, that LGBTQ Ohioans and our relationships are inherently secular, unholy, anti-faith, anti-church and, thus, anti-pastor, under the dual guise of exclusive religion and bad public policy. It's about casting another net of shame over an already vulnerable group of citizens that still lack any statewide protections in housing, employment and public accommodations. This is Ohio masquerading itself as regressive North Carolina or Indiana, and it's bad for business.
The God I worship is about loosening the bonds of oppression, not piling on. I serve the One whose burden is light, not made excessively heavy. But most importantly, as a citizen of this state, I smell rotten legislation when it's foisted upon us.
My clergy colleagues widely agree: we don't need these protections; we already have them. Instead, as concerned Ohioans, let's turn our legislative energies toward those who really do need our watchful love and compassion.
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