Editors note: This is part one of a two-part series called "Faith and Homosexuality."
What makes a marriage? Is it a relationship between a man and a woman or between two people, regardless of gender, who have committed their lives to each other?
Later this month, the U.S. Supreme Court is expected to render decisions on the federal Defense of Marriage Act and California's Proposition 8.
DOMA, passed in 1996 by Congress, defines marriage as between a man and a woman and prevents the federal government from recognizing same-sex marriages and denies those couples health, tax and other benefits extended to heterosexual couples.
Proposition 8, a 2008 California constitutional amendment that banned gay marriage, was struck down by the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.
The nation and religions are divided over these issues. Some faith traditions have become accepting of gay and lesbian relationships, and by July 1, Delaware will become the 11th state to recognize same-sex marriages.
Other faith traditions believe same-sex relationships go against the natural order of life and should not be recognized. In 38 states, marriage is defined as between a man and a woman in state laws with 30 states making it part of their state constitutions. The other eight states, including Pennsylvania, have statutory language that defines marriage as a relationship between a man and a woman.
Faith traditions that affirm same-sex partnerships believe God accepts everyone, and all people should feel welcome in their houses of worship.
Alec, whose identity has been changed for this story, remembers growing up attending a church in the Altoona area that accepted him in contrast to the reaction of some of his peers.
"In junior high, I used to be beaten up every day because I was gay," he said.
At the Methodist church his family attended, his sexual orientation was not an issue.
"If the church had any issues with gays, it never mentioned them," he said.
Alec, who continues to live in the Altoona area, said gays want to be accepted, and he believes others need to be educated for that to happen.
"We don't want to be in the closet," he said. "I truly believe there is a strong correlation between education and acceptance."
To him, fundamental Christians don't accept the homosexual lifestyle because they are fearful of the unknown and shun people who are not like them.
It does not have to be that way, he said.
He cited a Methodist church in Rehoboth Beach, Del., that is accepting and has an openly gay congregation.
"It is not a big deal," said Alec, adding that he is now an agnostic. "Churches should not make [homosexuality] a big deal."
In the past few decades, denominations have struggled with this issue. Some have changed their policies and others continue to study it.
Although the United Methodist Church accepts people in same-gender relationships as members, it does not approve them for ordination, nor are clergy permitted to officiate at same-sex weddings, even in states where the marriages are permitted, said Jerry Wolgemuth, director of communications for the Susquehanna Conference of the United Methodist Church.
Methodists believe homosexuality is incompatible with biblical teaching, he said. Yet, he explained, the church accepts the worth of the individual whom God has created.
Under its social principles, the United Methodist church states: "We affirm all persons as equally valuable in the sight of God. We therefore work toward societies in which each person's values are recognized, maintained and strengthened. ... We deplore acts of hate or violence against groups or persons based on race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, religious affiliation or economic status."
Wolgemuth said same-sex issues have come up at every general conference since 1968 when the Methodist Church and the Evangelical United Brethren Church merged to form the United Methodist denomination.
"The decision is always the same," Wolgemuth said.
The last general conference was held in 2012 in Tampa, Fla., with about 1,000 delegates representing conferences worldwide, including Africa, where there are strong feelings about the issue, he said.
Other mainline churches have come to different conclusions, including the Episcopal faith.
It was the first major Christian denomination to support clergy who have same-sex partners, and in 2004, it consecrated Gene Robinson as the first priest in an openly gay relationship to the role of bishop.
The following year, the United Church of Christ became the first mainline Christian denomination to officially support same-sex marriage at its general synod.
The Rev. Char Burch, interim conference minister for the Penn West Conference of the United Church of Christ, said although the resolution was made at a national gathering, local churches have the right to accept or not accept pastors for any reason.
"We don't have a hierarchy saying this is what it is," she said.
The denomination lost churches after the 2005 vote, but Burch said she could not determine if the congregations withdrew from the UCC or closed. On the other hand, congregations in other parts of the nation joined the UCC because of the resolution, she said.
"In general, the United Church of Christ has focused on no matter who you are, you are welcome in our churches," she said.
The UCC faith recognizes that "we are all children of God," she said. "As a denomination, it has always been the basis of who we are."
Following the UCC in being more accepting of gay relationships was the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. The largest Lutheran denomination in the United States adopted its "Human Sexuality: Gift and Trust" social statement in 2009 at its churchwide assembly.
Allowing gay clergy
Bishop Gregory Pile of the Allegheny Synod said the statement addresses various sexual matters, including abuse and pornography.
The portion of the statement that pertains to same-gender relationships permits people who are in a lifelong, monogamous relationship to serve as ministers.
Similar to the UCC, ELCA congregations call their own pastors and elect their bishops at synod assemblies.
Pile said while some churches, such as those in San Francisco, are open to the change, others opposed it.
The Southwest California Synod, which includes Los Angeles but not San Francisco, recently made history by electing the Rev. Dr. Guy Erwin, a gay partnered clergyman, as its bishop on May 31 for a six-year term.
But the ECLA does not consider gay and lesbian leaders who have partners to be married.
When it comes to defining marriage, the social statement defines it as a covenant between a man and woman.
Pile said the ELCA has no rite of blessing for same-sex couples, and if it did, the congregation and pastor would have to support the celebration.
The same principle applies to heterosexual unions. The pastor is bound by his or her conscience and has the right to refuse to officiate.
"You [as the couple] need to respect that," he said. "Just as I need to respect that you are bound by your conscience."
And while they cannot marry in an ELCA church, gay and lesbian couples are welcome to be part of the congregation and participate in church activities.
It's not black and white, Pile said of the viewpoints on same-gender relationships. For some people, it is a complex matter, he said, while others say answers found in Scripture make it very clear.
"Jesus says to love one another and does not exclude anyone," he said. "Some [people] say Scripture says homosexuality is wrong, and others disagree. Jesus doesn't talk about it."
Pile called it a gray area but added that "when we live in the gray area, that's how we grow."
The Presbyterian Church (USA) is still studying whether or not to perform same-sex wedding ceremonies.
At its biennial national General Assembly in Pittsburgh last summer, the commissioners - pastors and elders elected to vote on General Assembly business - agreed that the proposal needed more study, after an almost evenly split vote on the matter.
Materials are to be provided by the Office of Theology and Worship for the presbyteries to study, said the Rev. Joy Kaufmann, general presbyter for the Huntingdon Presbytery, based in Bellwood.
"We are a church deeply divided," she said.
Kaufmann explained that although she attends General Assembly as an employee of the church, the only people who are allowed to comment or vote on proposals on the floor are the elected commissioners. The commissioners are encouraged to vote their conscience and not as though they have constituents at home.
Two years ago, the church amended its "Book of Order," removing language specifically requiring chastity in singleness or fidelity in marriage.
The General Assembly approved broader replacement language, requiring that all aspects of life be "under the Lordship of Jesus Christ." The language allows congregations to determine who is fit for the ordained offices of deacon and elder and allows presbyteries to determine who is fit for the ordained office of pastor. The change is more in keeping with the historic Presbyterian understanding about where decisions concerning ordination are made, Kaufmann said.
In Reform and Conservative Judaism, gay and lesbian rabbis are accepted, and rabbis can officiate at same-gender couple weddings.
Rabbi Audrey Korotkin of Temple Beth Israel remembers attending classes with gay and lesbian students at Hebrew Union College in the early 1990s. She said they were mostly people in their 30s and 40s who never thought they would be permitted to be cantors or rabbis.
She said the college began accepting gay students as early as 1983, but it was another seven years before the Central Conference of American Rabbis accepted homosexuals into its rabbinate. She said the CCAR's backing may have given gay students more assurance that they would receive support in their job searches.
In 1996, the CCAR voted to support gay marriage.
Korotkin said gay clergy and gay marriages were contentious issues in the 1990s and rabbis argued vehemently both ways. She said it does not seem to be as much of an issue with younger rabbis. As with any marriage, she said it is up to the rabbi whether to officiate at the union in states where same-sex marriage is legal.
In Conservative Judaism, the Committee on Law and Jewish Standards also has settled both matters.
Rabbi Josh Wohl, spiritual leader at Agudath Achim Congregation, said the CLJS approved same-sex marriage ceremonies by a vote of 13-0 in April 2012. In 2006, the CLJS agreed that openly gays could become rabbis, and the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York has been accepting gay students since 2007.
Orthodox Judaism does not include gays in the rabbinate.
Same-sex couples living in an monogamous relationship is a relatively new development, he said, perhaps only in the last 100 or 200 years.
Wohl said the dignity of a human being takes precedence.
"It's not a choice," he said of same-sex attraction. "It's genetic. We should stop punishing people for the way they are."
MONDAY: Gays strive for acceptance.
Mirror Religion Editor Linda T. Gracey is at 946-7448.