MINNEAPOLIS &

It doesn't matter if you're gay or straight, you can't get legally married at Lyndale United Church of Christ.




The small, liberal church in south Minneapolis was the first of several Twin Cities congregations last year to stop performing civil marriage ceremonies as long as gay marriage is illegal. These churches, and a handful of others around the country that took the same step, will still hold a religious ceremony to bless the unions of straight and gay couples &

but straight couples must go separately to a judge or justice of the peace for the marriage license.




"If you feel that gay and lesbian people are loved and credited by God, then how can we continue to discriminate against our brothers and sisters?" asked Rev. Don Portwood, the reserved Nebraska native who's been lead pastor at the 120-member Lyndale United Church of Christ for 27 years.




The churches in question minister to only a handful of the most liberal churchgoers in Minneapolis and St. Paul, and most have a large contingent of gay members in the congregation.




"Go 20 miles out of the city and it will be a different story," said the Rev. David Runnion-Bareford, executive director of Biblical Witness Fellowship, a New Hampshire-based conservative movement within the United Church of Christ.




But the pastors leading these congregations don't expect other churches, particularly those from more conservative denominations, to follow suit. Rather, it's a new strategy for achieving legal gay marriage, with supporters hoping to push toward a society that views civil and religious marriage as separate institutions.




"There's a real shift going on here where I think more and more people are recognizing the distinction, that what the state offers and the church offers are two different things," said the Rev. Mark Wade, pastor of the 540-member Unitarian Universalist Church in Asheville, N.C.




Last year, Wade stopped signing marriage licenses, and now speaks of it as a stand for the separation of church and state. "We tell couples to go to the magistrate," Wade said. "I felt I couldn't serve an unjust law. That didn't make any sense to me."




It's difficult to know how many congregations nationwide have taken such a step. Wade said he knows of about a dozen fellow Unitarian ministers who won't sign marriage licenses. There are at least five congregations in the Twin Cities that either no longer perform civil marriages or are phasing them out &

three from the United Church of Christ, one Unitarian and one Lutheran.




Portwood said he knows of at least several other UCC congregations around the country that have made the change. Several messages left with UCC headquarters in Cleveland were not returned.




The UCC, which counts presidential candidate Barack Obama among its members, is one of the oldest denominations in the United States, with roots going back to the Pilgrims. In 2005, the church's General Synod voted to support same-sex marriage as a civil right, the first mainline Christian denomination to do so.




That started the discussion at several of the UCC congregations in the Twin Cities that led to the current policies. "I don't know that they thought we'd go quite this far," said the Rev. Sarah Campbell, lead pastor at the 650-member Mayflower Congregational Church in Minneapolis, which followed the Lyndale church's lead a few weeks later.




Both Campbell and Portwood said the change was an easy sell with their congregations. Both churches put it to a vote of their congregations. At Lyndale, there were no dissenting votes, while at Mayflower there were only two.




Portwood said Lyndale never held many weddings, and that hasn't changed since the new rule. Mayflower, with a larger congregation, has traditionally held more weddings and hasn't seen a spike or decline since the change, Campbell said. In Asheville, which Ward said is something of a "wedding tourist destination," the Unitarian Universalist Church saw an initial drop-off in wedding ceremonies but has since returned to normal levels, he said.




Vickie Wunsch and Susie George, partners for the last 12 years, had a religious wedding ceremony at Mayflower a few weeks ago. "It was what I would consider a pretty traditional wedding," Wunsch said. The two have a marriage license from Canada, but hope to someday get one from the state of Minnesota, she said.




"I think both the civil and the conventional aspects of marriage are important, but they both have their place," Campbell said. "It's just gotten mixed up where they're not clearly separated. I would say it's only a matter of time before we move to what they've done in Canada, South Africa, Europe &

separating out those two aspects."




Runnion-Bareford, whose group led the opposition to UCC's declaration on gay marriage in 2005, said that might not be as difficult to achieve as some might imagine. If gay marriage becomes legal in states other than Massachusetts, Runnion-Bareford predicted, then churches like Lyndale and Mayflower could find unlikely allies.




"I know there are clusters of conservative pastors in Massachusetts who have discussed refusing civil ceremonies so as not to be under pressure to perform same-gender ceremonies," said Runnion-Bareford, who himself believes that government and the church have a joint interest in promoting traditional marriage as a societal good.




"The question they are putting forward is, what is that connection going to be?" he said. "Will clergy continue to be civil agents? What will be the changing picture of the relationship between religion and marriage?"