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Doctrine disputes grow as gays wed

Some scholars insist on literal readings of religious texts. Others call for new analyses.

June 19, 2008|Duke Helfand | Times Staff Writer

With same-sex marriage now legal in California, people of faith are renewing a passionate debate over whether homosexuality is sanctioned by God.

Christians, Jews and Muslims on both sides of the issue cite the holy writings of their religions. Some note that the Bible depicts man-lying-with-man as an "abomination," while others say it speaks of God's love for all people created in his image.

Both sides defend their positions with the zeal of the biblical warriors who inhabit their scriptures.

"Homosexual intimacy is out of bounds. It's not what God created us for," said Richard Mouw, president of the evangelical Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena.

Mouw cites Romans 1 in the New Testament that decries men and women abandoning "natural relations" and men "inflamed with lust for one another" committing "indecent acts with other men" -- behavior that carried death as punishment.

"Sexuality within the context of marriage is the order of creation," he said.

Nonsense, says the Rev. Mel White, a former Fuller professor and evangelical author who married his partner of 27 years in a ceremony Wednesday at All Saints Episcopal Church in Pasadena.

White calls the Bible a living document that must be understood in its historical context -- a view shared by reform-minded clergy and theologians from other faiths.

Early Jews and Christians, White said, defended a heterosexual ethic to ensure the continuity of tenuous tribal communities. These religious pioneers, he added, had no way of foreseeing modern advances in psychology and other fields that would reveal homosexuality as an orientation rather than a choice.

"The Bible says as much about sexual orientation as it does about toasters or nuclear reactors," White said. "We have to grow with the times."

Other clergy reject the scientific argument and say homosexuality is a choice.

A decision by the California Supreme Court last month allowed weddings to go forward starting Tuesday, and set the stage for a statewide initiative on the November ballot aimed at amending the state Constitution to ban same-sex marriage.

Theologians and biblical scholars trace the origins of the dispute to a handful of passages in the Torah, New Testament and Koran.

Perhaps the most frequently cited is Leviticus 18:22: "You shall not lie with a man as one lies with a woman: It is an abomination."

The passage from the Torah is repeated, with slight variations, in Christian scripture, which, like the Jewish text, orders death for violators. The Koran also denounces homosexuality, in Chapter 7, Verse 81: "For you practice your lust on men in preference to women: You are indeed a people transgressing beyond bounds."

Conservatives in the three religions largely interpret the passages the same way. There is nothing wrong with being gay, they say. Acting on homosexual impulses, however, is another matter.

"The church says that homosexuals should be treated with love and respect, but redefining the natural and divine institution of marriage is simply something we are not able to do," said Father Marcos Gonzalez of St. John Chrysostom, a Roman Catholic parish in Inglewood that serves 9,000 families. "From all time, it is obvious, for the species to procreate, it requires a man and a woman. The bodies are made to fit with each other. We do not have the authority to redefine it."

But other clergy criticize what they see as a selective analysis of the texts. Jesus condemned divorce and remarriage, they point out, but that hasn't stopped many Christians from splitting and remarrying.

The Old Testament not only denounces adulterers and children who curse their parents, it demands the death penalty for both. It prohibits sex between husbands and wives during menstruation, even though theologians acknowledge the practice occurs without any formal reprimands.

"Everybody without exception reads the Bible selectively," said Jay Johnson, a theology professor at Pacific School of Religion in Berkeley. "The question is, how do we decide that one portion is critical to our lives while others are not?

"These texts come from a different culture, a different society," added Johnson, who also serves as academic research director at the school's Center for Lesbian and Gay Studies in Religion and Ministry.

"They need to be interpreted," he said.

That is precisely what leaders in Judaism's Conservative Movement tried to accomplish -- with admittedly mixed results.

Eighteen months ago, the movement's powerful law and standards committee split over whether to allow seminaries to enroll homosexuals as rabbinical students and to let rabbis perform blessings for same-sex couples.

Half of the committee adopted a position that called for ordaining gays, as long as they refrained from anal sex, as interpreted in Leviticus. The panel argued that protecting dignity is a well-established Jewish legal principle.

But the other half said it could find no basis in Jewish law to support a change in policy.

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