Clergy members of the First Congregational United Church of Christ are refusing to sign marriage licenses for any couple until they are able to sign the document for any couple, gay or straight.

Clergy members of First Congregational United Church of Christ are refusing to sign marriage licenses for any couple until they are able to sign the document for any couple, gay or straight.

The Rev. Pam Shepherd came up with the idea after realizing she was inadvertently contributing to discrimination against gay and lesbian couples, she said.

"I've been for civil rights for gay and lesbian people for a long, long time, but I never thought, 'I'm helping the discrimination every time I sign a license,'" she said. "Every time I sign a license, it's like I'm saying, 'OK,' but it's not OK."

She also wants to draw attention to the separate roles of church and state. American clergy have more power than their European counterparts because they can sign legal documents, therefore making decisions that should be left up to the government, Shepherd said.

"We've blurred equal protection under the law and civil rights of all people with the right of faith communities to marry or refuse to marry anyone they want," she said. "Our faith communities need to struggle about what the Bible says about gay people and gay marriages, but the government should be deciding who gets civil rights based on the Constitution. The Constitution is very clearly based on life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, and if marriage is not the pursuit of happiness, what is?"

Shepherd and three other retired clergy members who attend the church have signed a letter giving up their right to sign marriage licenses. They will still perform marriages, she said, but couples will have to visit a judge or justice of the peace for a license before marrying in the church. Shepherd estimates that she signed about five marriage licenses in 2008.

The clergy's decision was announced last week with unanimous support from the Church Council to a congregation that is more than 90 percent straight, Shepherd said. Her sermon on Sunday focused on marriage equality, and after the message, they held a talkback session for church members to discuss the issue.

"I know a lot of other ministers in the community will disagree with us, but it grows out of our faithful reading of the Bible and our attempt to follow Jesus," she said. "For us, it's a faith issue. It's not just a political stand."

Next Saturday, the church will also host wedding ceremonies for gay couples.

Leslie A. Stone, who is helping organize Saturday's event with Shepherd, said she is happy to have the support of a church behind her.

"When our straight allies stand up for us and our right to protect our families and treat us with respect, I think that's fabulous," Stone said. "I was thrilled that Pam had this idea because it's an opportunity for more people to become educated on the inequalities that exist for same sex couples who are committed to each other and want to protect their relationships."

There are more than 1,400 state and federal benefits that married couples can receive that gay and lesbian couples are ineligible for, including Social Security and Medicare benefits and inheritance rights, according to a list compiled by the General Accounting Office in 1997.

That was the same kind of inequality that Charles Harlow, one of the church's retired clergy members, saw during the civil rights movement earlier in his career. He views the debate for gay rights in a similar lens.

"I believe in equality, I believe in justice, and I'm not against love," he said. "I think we need more of it in the world, not less, and people shouldn't be beating other people over the head because they like a person that is the same gender they are."

Staff writer Julie French can be reached at 482-3456 est. 227 or jfrench@dailytidings.com.