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Pullen Baptist Church in Raleigh has taken the rare action of voting to prohibit the pastor from acting as an agent of the state in legalizing marriages until the state grants the same opportunity for legal marriage to gay couples. The vote, held Nov. 20, was unanimous.

The action comes as no real surprise. Pullen’s practice of offering holy unions for gay couples goes back 20 years. That’s what got the church kicked out of the Southern Baptist Convention in 1992 (it was also disfellowshipped from the Baptist State Convention of North Carolina and the Raleigh Baptist Association). Pullen still maintains affiliated with American Baptist Churches in the USA, the Alliance of Baptists, and other groups.

The church has a history of prophetic social activism sparked by pastors such as W.W. Finlator (1956-82) and Mahan Siler (1983-98). Siler has long questioned whether pastors could, in good conscience, perform state-sanctioned wedding ceremonies for straight couples while the state denied the same right to gay couples. Current pastor Nancy Petty, who self-identifies as a lesbian, took the initiative of asking the church to consider the prohibition so the congregation as a whole could take a stand on the issue.

I’ve known other pastors who have adopted the same stance as a personal decision, but Pullen is the rare church that will make it a church policy. The church will continue to host and sanction weddings as holy unions for both gay and straight couples — the pastor just can’t sign the marriage license, so heterosexual couples will need to stop by a magistrate’s office at some point if they wish to satisfy the state.

Aside from the issue of justice being illustrated so well by Pullen’s decision, I’ve often wondered whether pastors shoud be acting as agents of the state anyway. In performed many weddings, I chose not to say “by the power invested in me by the state of …” before pronouncing a couple to be husband and wife. But, I still scrambled around with the wedding license, performing my state-mandated duty of filling in the date and place, getting witnesses to sign, adding my signature, and mailing it in under threat of dire penalties if I should forget.

Many pastors and churches, I know, oppose same-gender marriage and thus don’t see marriage inequality as an issue. Even so, is expecting pastors to act as government agents a violation of our cherished principle of the separation of church and state? That’s a subject that deserves some serious thought.

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