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Cali Owings, Published July 27 2013

Moorhead congregations weigh same-sex ceremonies

MOORHEAD – The Rev. Holly Johnson found out she’ll be able to marry same-sex couples a week before Minnesota’s law legalizing same-sex marriage takes effect.

Johnson heads the Project F-M, an Evangelical Lutheran Church in America initiative aimed at helping people in their 20s and 30s find God.

For that reason, it’s important that the ministry is welcoming to gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender individuals, said Johnson, whose board signed off Thursday on her request to marry same-sex couples.

But most area churches that could allow pastors to start marrying gays haven’t decided yet if they will.

“Unless a congregation has already been out there on this topic, most of them will start responding after the fact,” said the Rev. Larry Wohlrabe, bishop of the Moorhead-based Northwestern Minnesota Synod of the ELCA.

The decision is already made for several Moorhead churches with doctrines that clearly espouse marriage as between one man and one woman, such as its Methodist, Catholic and Baptist churches. And the First Congregational United Church of Christ in Moorhead has long been supportive of gay marriage.

But for the ELCA, which has seven congregations in Moorhead, the decision rests with local congregations. At its 2009 national assembly, the ELCA passed policy recommendations to find “ways to allow congregations that choose to do so to recognize, support, and hold publicly accountable lifelong, monogamous, same-gender relationships.”

Addressing the issue

Following Minnesota’s legalization of same-sex marriage in May, the Northwestern Minnesota Synod provided guidance for congregations moving forward, Wohlrabe said.

The bishop said he wanted to help pastors and congregations respond to requests that might come their way. “We all know there are gay and lesbian people in our midst, they are in our churches, and they will seek to be married,” he said.

But of the more than 240 congregations in the synod, Wohlrabe said last week he knew of only one that had taken recent action on the issue.

Many congregations are still trying to figure out how to talk about same-sex marriage, he said.

For instance, Trinity Lutheran in Moorhead is open to same-sex marriages, said the Rev. C.J. Valenti, but “it really

hasn’t come up.”

She said that’s largely due to the demographics of the congregation.

The Rev. Gary Mikkelson of Bethesda Lutheran Church said he doesn’t feel pressed to make a decision before Aug. 1.

Johnson said she thought many ELCA churches were “not so opposed, but not sure if they want to jump into the change.”

She said she was proactive about same-sex marriage because if she waited until she was asked, it would be “[seeing] a person as an issue.”

St. John the Divine Episcopal Church in Moorhead may also perform same-sex marriages under Episcopalian doctrine, but the church did not return phone messages last week.

History of blessings

Many of the congregations that have a history of welcoming and blessing same-gender couples in the area are in Fargo.

The Pride Collective and Community Center maintains a list on its website of congregations with a “clear desire to be known as LGBTQA-friendly and affirming.”

Only one of the five congregations listed is in Moorhead – First Congregational United Church of Christ.

Pastors at Fargo and West Fargo churches have been blessing same-sex unions for years, even though those unions aren’t recognized by the state of North Dakota. They might be asked to do the same across the border where the marriages will be legal.

The Rev. Peter Schmidt, who has blessed same-sex couples at Faith Lutheran Church in West Fargo, said he’s credentialed to perform weddings in Minnesota. He’ll attend the mass marriage ceremony at midnight at the Clay County Courthouse, but only as a guest of several friends getting married.

St. Mark’s Lutheran Church, St. Stephens Episcopal Church and the Unitarian Universalist Church of Fargo-Moorhead, all in Fargo, are also listed on the Pride Collective site.

Readers can reach Forum reporter Cali Owings at (701) 241-5599