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updated: 1/19/2014 5:11 PM

Same-sex couples prepare for religious wedding ceremonies

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  • Video: Gay marriage wedding plan

  • Video: Churches and same-sex weddings

  • Jovi Tomaneng, left, and John Stilp, center, of Naperville discuss wedding plans with their pastor, the Rev. Mark Winters at First Congregational United Church of Christ in Naperville.

       Jovi Tomaneng, left, and John Stilp, center, of Naperville discuss wedding plans with their pastor, the Rev. Mark Winters at First Congregational United Church of Christ in Naperville.
    Bev Horne | Staff Photographer

  • The Rev. Betty Jo Birkhahn-Rommelfanger, pastor of Church of the Incarnation United Methodist Church in Arlington Heights, has performed about 10 same-sex commitment ceremonies since becoming an ordained minister, even though she could face disciplinary action from her church hierarchy.

       The Rev. Betty Jo Birkhahn-Rommelfanger, pastor of Church of the Incarnation United Methodist Church in Arlington Heights, has performed about 10 same-sex commitment ceremonies since becoming an ordained minister, even though she could face disciplinary action from her church hierarchy.
    Joe Lewnard | Staff Photographer

  • Jovi Tomaneng, left, and John Stilp, right, of Naperville will be getting married in August at First Congregational United Church of Christ in Naperville. The couple say they wanted to have a religious ceremony for their wedding.

       Jovi Tomaneng, left, and John Stilp, right, of Naperville will be getting married in August at First Congregational United Church of Christ in Naperville. The couple say they wanted to have a religious ceremony for their wedding.
    Bev Horne | Staff Photographer

 

Riding a crowded bus to Springfield last October, where they would join thousands of other advocates demonstrating for same-sex marriage, John Stilp and Jovi Tomaneng turned to the Rev. Mark Winters, who organized the busload of parishioners making the trip from Naperville.

"By the way, when this passes, we are getting married in the church," Stilp said.

"I can't wait to marry you," Winters said, smiling.

Stilp and Tomaneng, both 41, are Catholic. When they marry on Aug. 8, however, it will be in First Congregational United Church of Christ in Naperville, one of a number of suburban churches that will officiate same-sex weddings once they are legal June 1.

Most gay couples seeking to wed will simply convert their civil union to a marriage in their county clerk's office, said Patty Dillon, director of field operations for Equality Illinois, a Chicago-based gay rights advocacy group. But those who want a religious ceremony will find the rules governing same-sex marriage vary by denomination, congregation and even individual clergy.

After civil unions became legal in Illinois in 2011, Equality Illinois compiled a list of more than 150 clergymen and women who were willing to perform them. They're now drawing up a new list of clergy who will perform same-sex marriages.

Dillon noted that some 300 members of the clergy signed a letter of support for same-sex marriage last year.

"We found a wide array of members of faith who are not only supportive of LGBT equality and the ability to access the right of marriage but are willing to help us in our overall mission to achieve LGBT equality for several issues," Dillon said. "The perception that the faith community doesn't support LGBT equality is unfortunate. There's a wide array of beliefs."

Both lifelong Catholics, Stilp and Tomaneng knew their church doesn't acknowledge same-sex marriage. But both insist on being married before God.

"We go to church on a regular basis. Religion has always been in our lives as a couple," said Stilp, who, with Tomaneng, attended a Catholic church in Naperville until a year ago. "We decided to find a church that we felt more welcome in and was still with our same Christian beliefs, but we didn't feel like we were stepchildren."

With same-sex marriage now legal in Illinois, many faiths are considering their positions. The Catholic Church does not perform same-sex marriages, although some individual priests will fly under the radar and bless unions. Many United Church of Christ congregations declared themselves "open and affirming" as early as two decades ago, and at the UCC's 25th General Synod in 2005, a resolution was approved that called upon local congregations to "consider adopting wedding policies that do not discriminate against couples based on gender."

Other denominations' positions are murkier, and often it comes down to individual congregations.

The Episcopal Church's national governing body allows individual bishops to determine whether to sanction same-sex marriages. Bishop Jeffrey Lee, the leader of the Diocese of Chicago, has agreed to let individual churches choose for themselves.

Tom Neal and Mario Cruz-Lopez, of Des Plaines, went to Catholic Mass every Sunday, but once the same-sex marriage law was signed in November, they began searching for another Christian church that would perform their wedding.

At St. Martin's Episcopal Church in Des Plaines, the new priest-in-charge, the Rev. M.E. Eccles, told Neal, 29, and Cruz-Lopez, 30, she'd be willing to perform their ceremony in June if the church council approved. It did.

Committed Catholics, the couple had briefly considered asking a Catholic priest to bless their union but dismissed the idea as being too dangerous for the priest and not really fulfilling their needs.

"We're trying to be married in front of God and in our faith," Neal said. "We're not interested in making excuses for what we're trying to do."

Cruz-Lopez said all he and Neal want is what other couples have, "a faithful and very religious ceremony."

Other members of the clergy, including some United Methodist and Presbyterian pastors, will perform same-sex marriages even though their church elders don't allow it -- and the pastors could get in trouble.

The Rev. Betty Jo Birkhahn-Rommelfanger, pastor of Church of the Incarnation United Methodist Church in Arlington Heights, officiated a civil union of two men in her church in 2011 -- one of about 10 such same-sex commitment ceremonies she's performed since being ordained in 1976. Some of those ceremonies took place before the church leadership banned same-sex unions in the mid-1990s, but these days she is clearly breaking the rules.

She could face disciplinary action -- but only if someone brings charges, and a jury comprised of other Methodist pastors finds her guilty. That hasn't happened, and she says she's still happy to perform same-sex ceremonies at her church.

"In terms of my ministry, we have an altar that's open for all people," she said. "The blessing of God is not restricted, whether it's a same-sex couple or heterosexual."

Within the Lutheran Church, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America's churchwide assembly voted in 2009 to pave the way for same-sex unions, though individual congregations were tasked with ultimately deciding for themselves. The more conservative Missouri and Wisconsin synods do not sanction same-sex marriages.

ELCA bishops later clarified that clergy who are in a long-term monogamous relationship -- whether gay or straight -- should seek the highest level of civil recognition available within their jurisdiction.

In other words, the Rev. Keith Fry, the openly gay pastor of Christ the Lord Lutheran Church in Elgin, finds himself in the interesting position of being required to marry his partner of 22 years. They will happily comply once the law takes effect in June, even as the ELCA is still developing an official rite for same-sex wedding ceremonies.

"I'm required to seek marriage now, just as a heterosexual pastor in a relationship would be required to seek marriage," Fry said. "The ground is shifting faster under the bishops' feet than I think quite what they've been able to come up with."

Jess and David Cole, of Broadland, Ill., are already legally married. They tied the knot at Countryside Unitarian Universalist Church in Palatine on Dec. 23 -- exactly one week after U.S. District Judge Sharon Johnson Coleman ruled that couples with a terminally ill member can marry immediately in Cook County.

Jess Cole got a note from his doctor confirming his cardiomyopathy and coronary artery disease as a terminal illness. They got a marriage license at the Cook County courthouse in Maywood on Dec. 20. The Rev. Lise Sherry of Unitarian Universalist Church in Elgin wanted to do their wedding ceremony, but her church is in Kane County, so she made the arrangements at the Palatine church.

"We have a strong faith," said Jess Cole. "If we were married in front of a judge, it would be a usual thing. We

should be married in a church with the eyes of God. We both felt very, very strongly about that."

The ceremony was simple and quick. The few witnesses to the wedding were members of the church's bridge club who were at the church that day.

Jess Cole, 69, and David Cole, 55, have been together for 32 years. David had his last name legally changed in DuPage County court in the 1980s when the couple lived in West Chicago.

They've regularly attended Catholic Mass for years and still plan to do so.

In fact, the Sunday after their marriage in Palatine, they were back at their home parish downstate.

"We went to Mass and the priest gave his homily about the problem of divorce and same-sex couples getting married," Jess Cole said. "So that was refreshing."

Within the branches of the Jewish faith, two suburban Reform rabbis -- Rabbi Scott Looper of Congregation Or Shalom in Vernon Hills and Rabbi Andrea Cosnowsky of Congregation Etz Chaim -- said they are willing to perform same-sex marriages. The same goes for a Conservative rabbi, Jeff Pivo, of Congregation Beth Judea in Long Grove.

The Cook County clerk's office in downtown Chicago will be open June 1, even though it is a Sunday. Officials are expecting a number of same-sex couples to be there to pick up marriage licenses, but they won't be officially married until a judge or clergy member performs a ceremony, and the couple return the paperwork to the clerk, according to clerk's office spokesman Jim Scalzitti.

Meanwhile, John Stilp and Jovi Tomaneng have filled out an application and put down a deposit at First Congregational United Church of Christ in Naperville to hold Aug. 8 as their wedding date. They've already secured a banquet room for about 125 people at a local restaurant. Still on the to-do list is premarital counseling with the Rev. Winters, and to discuss the particulars of the wedding ceremony itself.

When Winters performed civil unions there in 2011 and 2012, in his mind they were weddings. He even got permission from his local church council to call them that.

"Now that it's been legalized, there's even more reason to call it 'marriage' and 'wedding' and 'family' because that's what it is," Winters said.

Stilp and Tomaneng knew that First Congregational had a welcoming attitude toward gays when they attended their first service in January 2013. But even they were "stunned" at Winters' sermon, which included his support for same-sex marriage, and how parishioners were encouraged to sign up after church for the bus trip to Springfield.

"We knew it was an open church but to have it talked about as part of service and people signing up after the service, it was kind of mind-blowing," Stilp said. "It's part of the DNA of that congregation."

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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