As the future of marriage across the country seems uncertain after the Supreme Court ruled on this issue in June, many pastors in North Carolina are wondering how churches should prepare in case same-sex marriage is ever legalized nationwide.
For now, officials and legal counsel for the Baptist State Convention of North Carolina (BSC) recommend that churches update or establish wedding policies.
But changes to their articles of incorporation, constitutions or bylaws are “not necessary at this point,” said Brian Davis, associate executive director-treasurer of the BSC.
“[With] the issue of marriage, we’ve only hit the tip of the iceberg of the changes and challenges that are coming,” he said.
On June 26 the High Court struck down the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) and chose not to get involved with Proposition 8 in California, essentially allowing gay marriage to resume in that state. North Carolina law, however, only recognizes marriage between a man and a woman.
“The rulings related to what the Supreme Court has done … only impacts the state of California in a very specific matter,” he said. “And when it impacted DOMA, that … again is not impacting us here.
“That’s why we’re saying we should not rush to change constitutions and bylaws … at this point.”
Davis clarified that a church constitution and bylaws can take more time and effort to amend than church policies that allow for regular reviews, updates and adjustments.
While churches need to pay attention to news reports, new legislation and cultural changes, any response by the church should begin with a review of their day-to-day policies.
“Start there,” Davis said. “If you don’t have wedding policies, this is a great time to look at establishing [them].”
“This is oversimplified [but]… your constitution and your articles identify who you are and what you do,” he added. “Your bylaws identify how you do it, in the broad sense, but … what governs your day-to-day activities is found in your policy manuals.”
And simply put, policies sound less bureaucratic.
“What you don’t want when you’re sitting down with a couple is to say, ‘Now here’s our constitution and bylaws. … [Instead you can say,] ‘Here’s our wedding policy.’”
What do good wedding policies look like?
A wedding policy could include expectations for counseling, conduct during weddings and receptions, and a clear statement in the introduction that explains the church’s beliefs on the issue of marriage.
“A good wedding policy should not focus on who you will not marry, but who you want to marry and how you want to help them,” Davis said.
“You don’t want to just focus on doing weddings. You want to build families. So make it a very positive and proactive statement about who you are and what your stance is on marriage as opposed to this being a list of the things we want to do.”
John Small, an attorney who provides legal counsel for the BSC, also added that churches should be prepared to discuss more than same-sex marriage when making changes to any governing documents.
“You’re going to get into issues,” Small said. “If you want … a wedding policy that says certain marriages can be performed and certain marriages can’t be performed in the church that’s fine. … Just be ready to address a whole range of issues if you open that door.”
Any new policies or adjustments to governing documents could spark conversations about other issues such as divorce, cohabitation before the wedding, whether or not couples should be members of the church and much more. Focusing on one issue in a policy or governing document also can create the perception that other related situations are allowed.
“You may think you’re solving one problem, and you may be creating another,” Small said.
Churches that rent out their facilities for weddings to non-members also could encounter more questions and challenges than churches that only allow members to be married on their property.
“If they’re members then there is a connection with the church,” Small said. “They’re going to be somewhat in agreement with the desires of the church.”
Most churches, however, don’t have any type of wedding policy other than information about the facility and wedding fees.
“We don’t have a wedding policy,” said John Attaway, pastor of Mount Pleasant Baptist Church in State Road. “I think you would find that most don’t have any policy [about weddings].”
In most cases, Attaway said, churches leave it up to their pastors to decide who should and shouldn’t be married. He added that establishing a policy could be helpful.
“If a church has a strong position [on] kinds of marriages they don’t believe are right, they need to state it,” he said. “That solves a lot of problems down the road when the new pastor comes in [and] nobody even bothered to ask about that particular aspect, and he has a different viewpoint than the church.”
Right now, Attaway is leading his church to seek legal advice over their membership policies.
“We’re trying to make sure we have adequate safeguards on the way our membership policies are stated, so somebody couldn’t use that against us legally,” he said. “The wording is important. … The idea can be right, but the wording can be wrong, and it can become a point of trouble.
“Some churches have stated that they were going to put in their bylaws ‘No gays,’” he said. “That’s like a red flag. … You’re singling out a certain subset of society. … Somebody would challenge that in court. I guarantee it.”
The important thing is to identify potential problems early, and be prepared to handle them before it’s too late, Attaway said.
“We need to be proactive and jump on this now and not wait until 50 churches in North Carolina are being sued,” he added. “We don’t need to be reactive; we need to be proactive.”
For more information contact Brian Davis at (800) 395-5102, ext. 5506, or [email protected]. The Christian Life and Public Affairs blog also provides a list of several websites the BSC recommends that address this issue. You can find that list at http://blog.ncbaptist.org/clpa/.