by Will Livesley-O’Neill
– The Capitol Hill Times –
One hundred and forty-two years after the founding of the Seattle First Baptist congregation as a protest against the treatment of the Duwamish people by city leaders, the church made another statement over the weekend. First Baptist married 25 same-sex couples in a ceremony Sunday afternoon, and was one of the only churches in the city to host weddings on Washington’s first day of legal marriage.
Seattle First Baptist has a long history of social activism, said Pastor Craig Darling, one member of the church’s five-person pastoral team. The church has performed same-sex weddings since 1979 and takes pride in its diverse congregation, which includes many from the LGBT community as well as Jews, Buddhists and others.
“This church has been so inclusive for so long that the issue [of marriage equality] is a little boring to us now, honestly,” Darling said. He said that the church treated every couple it married in the same way, but added that after talking with each of the 25 couples about their relationships, it was clear how special this particular ceremony would be.
“It really matters to us,” said Darling, who married his partner two years ago at the National Cathedral in Washington, D.C. “I didn’t know how much being able to call John my husband mattered until I married him.”
On Sunday, Darling officiated the exchange of vows and rings during the 40-minute ceremony, which also included blessings from other pastors, readings from congregants and performances by the First Baptist choir and by Diverse Harmony, the country’s first gay-straight alliance youth chorus.
Afterward, the newlyweds and their wedding parties gathered for cake and a celebratory reception. The moment was a long time coming for couples that had been together but unable to legally marry for decades. Pastor Tim Phillips noted during the ceremony that he doesn’t usually say “By the power vested in me by the state of Washington” during weddings, as he opposes the blending of religious and civil duties.
“But I’ll gladly make an exception today,” Phillips told the crowd.
For Ken Bengston, getting married in a church made the day more meaningful. He and Chuck Gilman, his partner of 17 years, had considered joining in the celebration at Seattle City Hall, where 138 same-sex couples married Sunday. “But I really think it’s about religious freedom as well as civil liberties,” he said. Bengston, who has three children and eight grandchildren, described himself as a family values conservative. “People say that [same-sex marriages] mean America’s turning its back on God. I say it’s a positive movement toward God.”
Scott Shurtleff and Stephen Lloyd married in the same building where Shurtleff works as the operations manager at Project Access Northwest, a nonprofit medical care service that rents space at First Baptist. They had a ceremony in Phoenix 13 years ago, and got in line at 8 p.m. last Wednesday at the King County Recorder’s office to get their marriage license at midnight. Shurtleff said it made sense for he and Lloyd to be a part of the event, as he felt welcomed by First Baptist immediately after visiting the church and applying for his job four years ago.
“It was clear to me that this was a very progressive place,” Shurtleff said.
Michelle Draper was overwhelmed by the reception of the crowd that had gathered for the ceremony. “It’s amazing to walk into a building and have it packed full of people you don’t know, standing and cheering,” Draper said. She and Laurie Cullen married after three and a half years together.
The Supreme Court will hear challenges to the Defense of Marriage Act and California’s same-sex marriage ban in the coming year, cases that could open the door for marriage equality in more than just the nine states where it’s now legalized.
“I hear that and I think, we did that. The community did that,” Lloyd said of the court’s decision to hear the cases. Shurtleff agreed that the legalization of same-sex marriage in Washington as well as Maryland and Maine last month has created a better national environment for the case for same-sex marriage.
“I’m cautiously optimistic,” he said. “I’m certainly more optimistic than I was prior to the election.”
Draper said she’s just excited for her marriage to now be public.
“Walking down the aisle of the grocery store, or anywhere, I can say, ‘This is not just my roommate, this is my wife,’” she said. “This is now recognized. And it really does make a difference.”