Stances of Faiths on LGBT Issues: Presbyterian Church (USA)

With an estimated 3.1 million members, the Presbyterian Church (USA) is very supportive of gay, lesbian and bisexual people — even though official church doctrine still holds that homosexual sex is sinful and against God’s will and bans gays and lesbians from the clergy.

The church welcomes gay, lesbian and bisexual people as members and has an active LGBT population. It prohibits discrimination based on sexual orientation. It also allows clergy members to bless holy union ceremonies (but not marriages) between same-sex couples, and in 2005 it urged federal lawmakers to acknowledge civil unions between same-sex couples that the states had recognized. It has also called for equal treatment of the children of gay, lesbian and bisexual parents. Some Presbyterian churches, however, have faced conflict over LGBT rights issues within their own congregations.

It has, to date, been silent on transgender members.

On Gays and Lesbians

Gay, lesbian and bisexual people are welcome in Presbyterian churches and called upon to be treated equally with all members. According to a 1978 document entitled, “The Church and Homosexuality”:

“Persons who manifest homosexual behavior must be treated with the profound respect and pastoral tenderness due all people of God. There can be no place within the Christian faith for the response to homosexual persons of mingled contempt, hatred, and fear that is called homophobia.

“Homosexual persons are encompassed by the searching love of Christ. The church must turn from its fear and hatred to move toward the homosexual community in love and to welcome homosexual inquirers to its congregations. It should free them to be candid about their identity and convictions.”

The document, which has been repeatedly challenged by gay and lesbian Presbyterians, however, also calls homosexual sex sinful, contrary to God’s plan and a possible symptom of the world’s larger problems.

“Homosexuality is not God's wish for humanity. … In many cases homosexuality is more a sign of the brokenness of God's world than of willful rebellion. In other cases homosexual behavior is freely chosen or learned in environments where normal development is thwarted. Even where the homosexual orientation has not been consciously sought or chosen, it is neither a gift from God nor a state nor a condition like race; it is a result of our living in a fallen world.”

While the church acknowledges that a person’s sexual orientation is not a choice, its teachings assert that people can choose whether to act on their desires. It also argues, against prevailing professional opinion, that gay, lesbian and bisexual people can change their orientation and urges heterosexual church members to encourage them to do so. “The Church and Homosexuality” states:

“Homosexual persons who will strive toward God's revealed will in this area of their lives, and make use of all the resources of grace, can receive God's power to transform their desires or arrest their active expression. … [The church] should also share honestly and humbly with them in seeking the vision of God's intention for the sexual dimensions of their lives. … It may be only in the context of loving community, appreciation, pastoral care, forgiveness, and nurture that homosexual persons can come to a clear understanding of God's pattern for their sexual expression.”

Some individual Presbyterian congregations have struggled with the issue of gay and lesbian acceptance within their own ranks. For example, after the Rev. Jeff Falter of Davis Memorial Presbyterian church in West Virginia wrote a column in his local newspaper supporting equality for gay and lesbian Christians in February 2005, his congregation voted to remove him from his position.

Opposition to Discrimination

In 1978, the Presbyterian leadership spoke out against discrimination against gays and lesbians and condemned laws banning consensual sex between same-sex couples:

“The Christian community … must do everything in its power to prevent society from continuing to hate, harass, and oppress [gay people]. … Sexual conduct in private between consenting adults is a matter of private morality to be instructed by religious precept or ethical example and persuasion, rather than by legal coercion.
“Vigilance must be exercised to oppose federal, state, and local legislation that discriminates against persons on the basis of sexual orientation and to initiate and support federal, state, or local legislation that prohibits discrimination against persons on the basis of sexual orientation in employment, housing, and public accommodations.”

The Presbyterian Board of Pensions also was considering extending domestic partnership benefits to its employees, following a decision by the General Assembly in June 2004.

Same-Sex Unions

Presbyterian policy bans the use of church facilities for marriage ceremonies for same-sex couples and forbids Presbyterian clergy from performing same-sex weddings. But Presbyterian ministers are permitted to perform holy union ceremonies for same-sex couples, as long as they are not considered the same as marriage. That rule was affirmed by the church’s highest court in 2002.

In 2004, the Presbyterian General Assembly passed a resolution to support laws recognizing relationships between “same-gender persons.” It urged state lawmakers to allow same-sex couples to join in civil unions, encouraged all Americans to support inclusive laws and urged the federal government to honor them.

The same resolution, however, also reaffirmed the church’s existing definition of marriage, “a civil contract between a woman and a man.” The same day, the General Assembly decided not to take a position on the Federal Marriage Amendment, which would write discrimination against same-sex couples into the U.S. Constitution, even though the church has opposed such laws in the past.

In January 2005, the General Assembly sent letters to President Bush and members of Congress supporting state legislation that would allow same-sex couples to enter into civil unions. The letters also urged Congress to enact federal legislation that would recognize civil unions recognized by states. In the letter to the president, Stated Clerk Clifton Kirkpatrick wrote:

“The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) declares that all persons are entitled to equal treatment under the law (Constitution of the United States of America). … We further, urge the Congress of the United States of America to recognize those state laws that allow same-gender union and to change federal laws to recognize all civil unions licensed and solemnized under state law to apply in all federal laws that provide benefits, privileges and/or responsibilities to married persons. … We urge you to do all within your power to protect the rights of same-gender persons.”

In May 2004, a high church court overturned the conviction of the Rev. Stephen Van Kuiken, of Cincinnati, who a lower court had found guilty of performing a same-sex marriage ceremony. The court ruled that the Presbyterian constitution does not prohibit ministers from performing marriage ceremonies for same-sex couples. It remains unclear what effect the ruling will have on the future performance of ceremonies for same-sex couples.

Children of Same-Sex Parents

A 2004 document entitled “Transforming Families” observes that same-sex couples make up a significant portion of the American population, and that many are raising children. It also urges Presbyterians to treat the children of same-sex couples equal to other children:

“From the studies that have been conducted over the past twenty years, no significant differences have been found between children reared by homosexual parents and children reared by a traditional set of heterosexual parents. …  Despite lack of agreement among Presbyterians regarding same-sex families, children of such couples need the same advocacy, protection, and respect that we encourage for all other children.”

LGBT Clergy

When the General Assembly first addressed this issue in 1976, it declared that non-celibate gays and lesbians should not be ordained although it suggested that married or celibate “repentant homosexual person[s]” should be allowed and even encouraged to join the clergy. According to “The Church and Homosexuality”:

“For the church to ordain a self-affirming, practicing homosexual person to ministry would be to act in contradiction to its charter and calling in Scripture, setting in motion both within the church and society serious contradictions to the will of Christ.

“The repentant homosexual person who finds the power of Christ redirecting his or her sexual desires toward a married heterosexual commitment, or finds God's power to control his or her desires and to adopt a celibate lifestyle, can certainly be ordained. … Indeed, such candidates must be welcomed and be free to share their full identity. Their experience of hatred and rejection may have given them a unique capacity for love and sensitivity as wounded healers among heterosexual Christians, and they may be incomparably equipped to extend the church's outreach to the homosexual community.

“We believe that Jesus Christ intends the ordination of officers to be a sign of hope to the church and the world. Therefore our present understanding of God's will precludes the ordination of persons who do not repent of homosexual practice.”

In 1996, the ban on non-celibate gay and lesbian clergy members became official doctrine when it was added as an amendment to the church constitution. Ordained church leaders are required “to live either in fidelity within the covenant of marriage between a man and a woman, or chastity in singleness.” Since 1996, the amendment has been challenged by GLB rights advocates at least five times.

In July 2004, after a high-profile debate, the General Assembly voted to preserve the ban. Supporters of LGB rights promised to bring the issue up at the next meeting in 2006. Some Presbyterian leaders who support the ban have predicted that if the ban is overturned, it could cause a major schism within the church.

Voices for LGBT Presbyterians

Headquarters Location:

If you would like to communicate with the Presbyterian Church (USA), here is their mailing address:

Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)
100 Witherspoon St.
Louisville, KY 40202-1396