The Highland Baptist Church of Louisville, Kentucky, has agreed to marry two of its gay members, the first wedding of its kind for the congregation.
David Bannister Jr. and Steven Carr II have been together for six years. According to the Courier-Journal, they share a house, a dog, a bank account and the same deep desire to be married as any heterosexual couple in love. The couple became engaged last summer in Washington DC, just weeks after the U.S. Supreme Court struck down the Defense of Marriage Act. Then the men went where few gay men have gone before. They asked the pastor of their Baptist church to marry them. To their delight, Joe Phelps, pastor of the Highland Baptist Church of Louisville, did not turn them away.
"It takes courage to step out into the unknown," said Pastor Phelps. "It's taking us courage to be one of the first churches to do this."
Pastor Phelps (left) said when he first arrived at Highland Baptist in 1997, there was an unwritten don't ask, don't tell policy regarding gay church members. The following year, a gay couple's photograph appeared in the church directory. Since then, though it has been a painfully slow process, the church began to acknowledge and then to welcome lgbt members and their children. In 2012, it ordained an openly gay minister, Maurice "Bojangles" Blanchard, who leads a gay ministry at the church.
"Inch by inch, it sort of begins to dawn on us." Pastor Phelps said. "Over time, we've come to the realization that led us to today."
In February of last year, the church formed a group of deacons to study the possibility of allowing same-sex weddings, but the group was disbanded without announcing a conclusion. Then in May of this year, a new study group chosen to replace them unanimously recommended the church begin offering same-sex weddings. Unanimous may be the wrong word. Let's say no one objected. A vote was never taken. Pastor Phelps explained the group felt it wouldn't be right to pass such a judgement:
"To vote on it is to basically ask the question, 'Are gay people fully human like the rest of us?' I think spiritually and morally, that's a step we cannot take."
So when David and Steven approached Pastor Phelps, he was able to say yes, making Highland one of the first Baptist churches in Kentucky to hold a same-sex wedding. Though David and Steven dismiss the idea that they are activists, they do believe their wedding will make a statement.
"If people don't get the shades pulled back on LGBT people's lives, they won't learn. They won't see," David explained. "So the onus is on us and our friends to talk with those around us. It would be very sad to us if we weren't able to have our church involved."
Sam Marcosson, a law professor at the University of Louisville, thinks David has the right idea, musing that he church's decision may influence the debate.
"What Highland is really doing is what churches do on important issues," Professor Marcosson said. "They're taking a stand in order to influence their community and move their community in a certain direction."
Now that the Baptists are cooperating, David and Steven have to hope Kentucky comes through and legalizes marriage equality before their wedding date next May. A judge struck down the state ban this week, but has placed a stay on marriages while the governor appeals the decision. If they are not able to marry legally in Kentucky by next May, the couple plans to hold their religious wedding ceremony at Highland Baptist Church, and then marry legally in a marriage equality state. Steven however, who is a Louisville native, has hope they will decide the case in time.
"It's my city," he said. "I have so much pride for it. I'd like to get my marriage license here."