Presbyterians voting in Tampa join a minority of presbyteries nationally that support a ban.
By SHARON TUBBS
© St. Petersburg Times, published February 25, 2001
TAMPA -- Tampa Bay Presbyterians overwhelmingly supported a ban on same-sex unions Saturday, bucking a national trend in the denomination to support such ceremonies.
When the votes were tallied, 140, or 58 percent, said they did not want church property to be used for, nor ministers to conduct, same-sex unions.
Presbyterian doctrine already prohibits same-sex marriage. But some ministers have been performing what they call same-sex "holy unions," in which gay couples say vows and profess their love before a minister, family and friends.
But the vote may mean little in the larger scheme of things. The local presbytery is in the minority among presbyteries nationally, and a majority of the regional bodies must approve the ban to make it effective.
Nationwide, 173 presbyteries are voting on the proposed ban. According to the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) Web site (http://www.pcusa.org), 71 had voted as of this week. Twenty-seven support a ban on same-sex unions; 44 do not.
All votes are to be in before a June meeting of the General Assembly, the church's governing body. For the amendment to pass, a majority of presbyteries, 87, must approve it.
During an hourlong and sometimes contentious debate, ministers, pastors and lay persons talked of what Jesus Christ would do if he were among them in the sanctuary at Forest Hills Presbyterian Church in Tampa.
For the Rev. John Loudon, the Bible is clear that same-sex unions are not God's will.
Loudon, senior pastor of First Presbyterian Church in Lakeland, said the proposed amendment is needed to reinforce the church's stance against homosexual marriage.
Some ministers, Loudon said, "are simply trying to get around the semantics of the ceremony by calling it a holy union."
The unions are not recognized as marriages by the state of Florida.
The Rev. William Martin, pastor of Northeast Presbyterian Church in St. Petersburg, was among those who put the issue on the denomination's national agenda.
Martin learned about two years ago that Good Samaritan Church in Pinellas Park had conducted same-sex unions. He filed a complaint with the local presbytery against Good Samaritan, and the dispute made its way to the denomination's national General Assembly.
Presbyteries in North Carolina and California sent similar resolutions to the assembly. Last summer, the General Assembly decided that regional presbyteries should vote.
After the vote Saturday, Martin stood outside the church and talked with friends about the vote. He had suspected the proposed ban would hold up -- "this is a conservative presbytery," he said. Still, Martin thought the vote would be much closer, as did those on the other side of the debate. Only designated representatives of each church were allowed to vote. Denise Gentry thought the vote would go differently. She is a member of Soulforce, an ecumenical gay rights group that stood outside the church and handed out literature before the vote was taken.
"They think homosexuals have an agenda to destroy the public image of the American family," she said after the meeting.
The Rev. Harold Brockus, the pastor who performed same-sex unions at Good Samaritan, said he was saddened by the lack of support.
"It's very painful for the church," Brockus said, "that we can't see that the foundation of our standing is the grace of God, not how good we are, how straight we are, how gay we are."
After the vote on same-sex unions, Brockus asked Presbyterians to support a proposal initiated by a presbytery in New York. That proposal, soon to be submitted to the assembly, asks to lift a ban that prevents practicing homosexuals from being ordained ministers, he said.
The moderator asked for a show of hands, and the sentiment was clear. The Presbytery of Tampa Bay will not support the New York proposal.