(THE TENNESSEAN) The couple buys a marriage license, a recognized officiant signs it and it's refiled with the local government. That's a legal marriage, and in 14 states — with Illinois just the governor's signature away from becoming the 15th — that's a process open to both straight and gay couples.
Getting the church on board is a little more complicated. The issue of whether clergy should officiate same-sex marriages is dividing an increasing number of denominations.
Now, a retired Nashville bishop has become the latest to draw headlines on the issue — reversing course from a path that, four decades ago, had him playing a key role in sending the church down a path of resistance to change.
The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America began allowing individual congregations to recognize same-sex marriages in 2009. Episcopalians adopted a same-sex marriage rite in July 2012, although a number of individual dioceses — including the one in Tennessee — chose not to allow it. The Presbyterian Church (USA) came close to approving same-sex marriages in 2012 but narrowly defeated the measure.
And United Methodists, the nation's largest mainline Protestant denomination, are nowhere close after debating the issue for decades.
That hasn't stopped pastors nationwide from defying church doctrine and performing those ceremonies. Some call it ecclesiastical disobedience. Others call it biblical obedience. Either way, it's exposing them to church discipline, with potential punishments ranging from verbal rebukes to loss of their ordinations — and the financial implications that go with it.
Despite warnings from his denomination that he'd be violating the faith's Book of Discipline, Bishop Melvin Talbert traveled from Nashville to near Birmingham, Ala., to perform the Oct. 26 wedding of Joe Openshaw and Bobby Prince. They were legally married Sept. 3 in Washington, D.C., but wanted a church wedding. Openshaw said he specifically wanted Talbert to officiate since the bishop had spent years supporting Methodist gays and lesbians.
That wasn't Talbert's stance 40 years ago at the 1972 Methodist general conference, which adopted language saying homosexuality is incompatible with Christianity. His views changed several years later, when he was invited to a weekend seminar of gay and straight Methodists; participants could not reveal which they were until the end.
The revelation destroyed his stereotypes. The married father and grandfather brought the issue to a head last year, when the denomination voted against removing the language he had helped put in.
"I declared those laws that prohibited clergy from marrying gay and lesbian folk and using the church for that purpose are immoral, unjust, they are evil, and they no longer deserve our loyalty and support," he said. "It's time for us to do the right thing."
He volunteered to perform same-sex weddings and urged fellow clergy to do the same. He likens his work to the nation's civil rights movement, a comparison he doesn't make lightly. Talbert, now 79, shared an Atlanta jail cell with Martin Luther King Jr. in October 1960 after being arrested at an Atlanta lunch counter sit-in.
Religious historians can point to several major social issues on which the church, by fits and starts, changed its stance. Vanderbilt University's James Hudnut-Beumler points to Southern religious leaders who went against church wishes and participated in the Underground Railroad to free slaves. In the 1960s, some ignored church orders not to integrate their congregations.
"Religious people do these kinds of things," he said. "We wouldn't have all of the denominations we just mentioned if it weren't for the Protestant Reformation, in which a lot of people were told, 'Well, you're not a part of this church anymore.' "
Clergy who officiate same-sex weddings are asking God to recognize, sanction and support the union. They ask the congregation to help the couple uphold their vows, Hudnut-Beumler said.
The issue drew debate in the Presbyterian Church (USA) in July 2012 when Tara Spuhler McCabe, three days after being confirmed as vice moderator of the denomination's general assembly, stepped down. Days before her confirmation, an anonymous person distributed evidence that she'd officiated a same-sex wedding in Washington, D.C., an event she didn't seek to hide but said she never thought to publicize, either.
After she resigned, a group of Presbyterians filed a complaint against her. The result was a censure: "The Presbytery of National Capital, in the name and authority of the Presbyterian Church (USA), rebukes you. You are enjoined to be more watchful and avoid such offense in the future."
McCabe, a straight, married mother of two, wasn't chastened. She asked for the censure to be read aloud at a church governance meeting because she wanted people to know what happened.
"I don't know if I'd do it again. I didn't know I was going to do it for this couple," she said. "I made this decision in complete awe of visiting them.
"I don't turn it down when I see the face of God in a commitment between two people."
The Episcopalian Church's biggest split over homosexuality was more about ordaining gay clergy — although the denomination's most famous pioneer, Bishop Gene Robinson, said the debate was overblown in media reports. Churches representing about 100,000 members broke off over the 2003 decision to ordain Robinson as bishop of the Diocese of New Hampshire. There are about 2 million Episcopalians in America.
Today, a map the Episcopalian gay-acceptance group Integrity USA keeps to show which dioceses approve of same-sex marriage has a handful of red "no" dots and a sea of blue "yes" dots.
"Western civilization as we know it hasn't ended," Robinson said. "These are the normal stresses and strains that come with change. It happened around the ordination of women and the new prayer book. People don't like the change, so they want to take their toys and go home. But that's never a solution."
He said Bishop Talbert is right to press the issue — that the Methodist church could get so bogged down in ecclesiastical trials that it will be forced to choose between keeping good clergy and protecting a belief most Methodists disagree with.
Talbert said it's unlikely he'd face discipline because the church conference that oversees him supports same-sex marriage. But he has run afoul of his colleagues on the Council of Bishops, which had issued a statement warning him not to officiate at the wedding.
On Tuesday, Bishop Rosemarie Wenner, president of the Council of Bishops, said in an e-mail that the council will ask all United Methodists to uphold church discipline and explained the council's decision to intervene.
"Every bishop belongs to the covenant of the Council of Bishops," she wrote. "We support one another in prayer and in our efforts to be faithful Christians and we question one another if we see that a colleague does not respect the discipline that is developed by actions of our governing body."
Talbert is more than at peace with his decision — he's 100 percent convinced he's right.
"I have openly spoken out against my own church," he said. "What they do, I can't begin to say. Personally, I'm not losing any sleep over it."