UNITARIAN UNIVERSALISTS Church supports same-sex marriages

The church doesn't insist on a belief in God.
BOSTON (AP) -- Its Beacon Hill headquarters are within earshot of the gay-marriage protests held on the Statehouse steps. But inside the Unitarian Universalist Association, the debate was settled a long time ago.
While other churches have fractured over gay marriage, the small denomination has been a leading religious voice in favor of same-sex unions.
Unitarian Universalist ministers have presided at gay weddings in San Francisco, and two of its clergy in New Paltz, N.Y., were charged after performing ceremonies there. The church's Web site offers a "Same Sex Wedding Planning Guide."
Looking ahead
And on Sunday, the day before the nation's first state-sanctioned gay marriages are set to begin in Massachusetts, Unitarian Universalist churches plan to welcome the newlyweds with fanfare that will include trumpets and the pealing of bells.
Then on Monday, association president Rev. William Sinkford will officiate at the wedding of Julie and Hillary Goodridge, lead plaintiffs in the case that led the state's high court to rule that gays have the right to marry. Two other plaintiffs will be married at the Arlington Street Church in Boston in a ceremony to be broadcast on ABC's "Nightline."
Three days later, the minister at the Arlington Street Church will marry her longtime partner at 8 a.m., then preside over gay marriages every 20 minutes, all day long.
Common ground is usually hard to find in a church that has few official beliefs -- it does not even insist on the existence of God -- and counts atheists, Christians, Jews and Buddhists among its members.
The Rev. Mr. Sinkford said the near-unanimity on gay marriage gives the denomination a clear voice that is rare in the tumultuous debate, and thinks it could boost membership.
"The growth will be a result," Mr. Sinkford said. But "it's not the objective."
The Unitarian Universalist church counts 155,000 adult members nationwide, almost the same as the 151,000 it had when the Unitarians and Universalists merged in 1961. In comparison, the Roman Catholic Church in Massachusetts -- one of the most Catholic states in the country -- counts about 3 million members.
About the church
The UU church has Protestant roots, with Unitarians emerging in resistance to New England Puritanism of the 18th century. Universalists believe that God is good and would never condemn a person. The denominations merged to unite increasingly similar liberal religious and political philosophies.
David Burton of the American Unitarian Conference, a group calling the church to return to its theological roots, said the Unitarian Universalists are a religion that does not have much religion left in it.
"They've taken God out of church and substituted it with liberal politics," he said.
The church rejects creeds, but it does adhere to seven principles, one of which affirms basic individual dignity. Mr. Sinkford said the church's support for gay marriage arose from that principle, and there were no doctrinal hurdles to negotiate.
By contrast, denominations such as the Episcopal Church, United Methodist Church and Presbyterian Church have long wrestled with the issue of gays, based on Biblical passages that condemn homosexual practice.
"For us, the authority rests in the human mind and heart, rather than a set of Holy Scriptures," Mr. Sinkford said.
Mr. Sinkford said the first gay wedding in the Unitarian Universalist church was performed in the late 1960s. The church established a special office to support gays in 1973. Since 1984, clergy have been performing "Services of Union" between same-sex couples.
With the start of gay marriages, "it's a wonderful victory, but we also recognize it's the beginning of a struggle," said the Rev. F. Jay Deacon, minister of the Unitarian Society of Northampton and Florence in western Massachusetts. "We're not here so the world can remain the same. We're here to change it."

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