Pullen Baptist takes a stand for gay marriage

acurliss@newsobser ver.comNovember 21, 2011 

Editor's note: Reader comments have been disabled on this story because of numerous violations of our comment policy.

The full congregation of Raleigh's Pullen Memorial Baptist Church voted Sunday to prohibit the church pastor from legally marrying anyone until she can legally marry same-sex couples under North Carolina law.

The congregants said in a formal statement that current North Carolina law - and the language proposed for a vote next year on an amendment to the state Constitution - discriminates against same-sex couples "by denying them the rights and privileges enjoyed by heterosexual married couples."

"As people of faith, affirming the Christian teaching that before God all people are equal, we will no longer participate in this discrimination," the church's statement says.

The vote was unanimous and brought tears to the eyes of some of the 100 or so members who stood to vote in favor of the "statement on marriage ceremonies."

Among them was the pastor, Nancy Petty, who began a church discussion on same-sex marriages this summer when she told congregants signing legal marriage certificates to wed heterosexual couples while not doing the same for homosexual couples had become a burden on her conscience.

The flock held several meetings afterward, resulting in Sunday's statement on marriage. It was written by church deacons and affirmed by the congregation.

Holy union only

Marriage ceremonies at Pullen will still be conducted, but they will be holy unions that "reflect the spiritual nature of the solemn commitments between two people in a loving relationship."

The pastor won't sign a certificate the state requires to establish a legal marriage.

Heterosexual couples who want a legal marriage will have to find it elsewhere, such as at a magistrate's office, until North Carolina laws change, the congregation said in its statement.

No one spoke out against the marriage statement Sunday in a gathering that filled a meeting hall with mostly gray-haired churchgoers.

Pullen, which has about 650 members and sits on Hillsborough Street just east of N.C. State University's bell tower, has long been known for taking an active role in social and political issues.

The church was kicked out of the Southern Baptist Convention in 1992 after a decision to bless gay marriages.

But the church remains a part of the American Baptist Churches USA denomination.

Congregation's will

Petty, who is a lesbian, said the decision was more than she expected after expressing concern this summer. She has performed about 150 ceremonies in 20 years, evenly split between gay and heterosexual couples.

"Their statement today on marriage equality continues their long-standing tradition of speaking out on behalf of God's love, compassion and justice in the world," Petty said.

"Their counter-witness to those who preach about a God whose love is exclusive and unwelcoming is nothing short of amazing grace."

Ned Yellig, 68, a retired hospice medical director, stood after the vote and thanked the pastor for leading with courage.

He said in an interview the vote reflected a change he has experienced himself since the church held its first gay union in the early 1990s.

"I had mixed feelings at that time," he said.

Over time, he said, his views evolved, and he now believes every person is a "manifestation of God" and that the church should no longer be a part of discriminating against some.

One of the deacons,Bernard Cochran, said current laws on same-sex marriage "deny justice" to gay people and are rooted in the same"alleged biblical grounds" as slavery was.

"Pullen rejects this sincere but misguided understanding of the Bible," said Cochran, a retired Meredith Collegeprofessor.

He added: "This is the church, not just its minister, standing up to discrimination as a body."

Curliss: 919-829-4840