Lately, one of the Religious Right’s primary arguments against LGBT equality is that allowing a minority they don’t like to participate equally in society somehow violates their “religious freedom.” Aside from the fact that they seem to believe that their religious freedom is much more all-encompassing than it actually is, they don’t believe in the concept of “religious freedom” for anyone but themselves. They oppose the construction of mosques on appropriately zoned land, and they oppose the exercise of Christian beliefs when those beliefs include full equality for LGBT people.
While the story of the marriage of Joe Openshaw and Bobby Prince isn’t specifically about the government (aside from the fact that they can’t legally marry in their home state of Alabama), the rifts their marriage is opening in the United Methodist Church show just how much the idea of “religious freedom” is increasingly a one-way street:
A retired United Methodist bishop from Tennessee said Monday that he will perform a wedding service for two men in Alabama despite opposition from the presiding bishop, who says the ceremony will violate church law.
Bishop Melvin G. Talbert, who has been active in efforts to eliminate barriers to gay marriage from United Methodist doctrine, said it will be an honor to officiate at the ceremony later this month in metro Birmingham for Joe Openshaw and Bobby Prince.
Talbert said he was contacted by the longtime partners after they learned they could not be married in the area church where they are active members.
While Alabama does not recognize same-sex marriage, the men were married legally in Washington, D.C., last month, Openshaw said. He and Prince want to have a church ceremony at home in Alabama for their family and friends.
“Just like anyone else who is getting married,” said Openshaw, 59.
The presiding bishop over that part of Alabama is not happy with Talbert’s decision to officiate the wedding, but Talbert is doing so out of obedience to scripture, exercising his own religious freedom:
The ceremony will be performed in a church aligned with a different Christian denomination since Bishop Debra Wallace-Padgett, who oversees United Methodist churches in North Alabama, barred it from occurring at the United Methodist church the men attend in suburban Birmingham.
Wallace-Padgett said she has asked Talbert to reconsider performing the service since official United Methodist doctrine says homosexual practices are “incompatible with Christian teaching.”
“Our ministers are not permitted to conduct ceremonies that celebrate homosexual unions or perform same sex wedding ceremonies,” Wallace-Padgett said in a statement released on a church website.
While the church officially views homosexuality as sinful, Talbert said he considers it an act of “biblical obedience” as a pastor to offer all ministries of the church to all people, including homosexuals who wish to marry.
The story of Joe and Bobby is the model of two people marrying for the right reasons, something that many right-wing Christians could aspire to if they were willing to look past their anti-gay animus. John Archibald gives a little perspective at AL.com:
First, you should meet Joe Openshaw and Bobby Prince. These guys attend Discovery United Methodist Church, where they lead a book club. They go to work and pull their weight and vacation down at the Gulf of Mexico. They eat Alabama barbecue on Idaho baked potatoes. Like anybody else.
They’ve been together 12 years, and already went to D.C. for a legal marriage. But as Methodists they wanted their relationship blessed by their God in their Church in front of their families.
But they can’t get married in their church. They can’t get an Alabama pastor to do the service, because doing so would break Methodist law as laid out in the Book of Discipline. That book – all-the-while extolling the virtues of inclusiveness and committing to ministry “for all,” declares homosexuality “incompatible with Christian teaching.”
Archibald also gives a bit more background on Bishop Talbert:
It is worth note that Talbert, a practitioner of “ecclesiastical disobedience,” was arrested in Atlanta during a civil rights era sit-in, that he shared a jail with Martin Luther King Jr.
Because the irony is thick. It was from a jail right here in Birmingham that King so famously answered clergy – including a Methodist bishop – who spoke out against disobedience. They were, like Wallace-Padgett, more concerned with law than fairness.
“You express a great deal of anxiety over our willingness to break laws,” King wrote then. “I would agree with St. Augustine that “an unjust law is no law at all.”
The man obviously has an esteemed history on matters of justice, fairness and equality.
So, in one corner, we have a Bishop who shared a jail cell with Dr. King, who believes in the love and commitment shared by Joe and Bobby, a couple whose lives are a model for what marriage can look like, and in the other corner, we have Church Teachings that, as written, are completely hypocritical when they use phrases like “for all,” and we can be assured that those who agree with Wallace-Padgett somehow believe that their “religious freedom” is being violated by Bishop Talbert, and Joe and Bobby.
But nobody’s talking about religious freedom as it pertains to those three men. That needs to change.