RELIGION
03/25/2013 07:23 pm ET Updated Mar 31, 2013

Gay Marriage Finds Church Support, Religious Foes As Supreme Court Hearings Begin

Hours before the Supreme Court is scheduled to hear oral arguments Tuesday over California's ban on gay marriage, hundreds of same-sex marriage supporters will gather a block away from the courthouse at an interfaith church service to ask for God's "love and justice" and to pray for "the dignity of all souls as a religious value," according to organizers.

Afterwards, the coalition of Jews, Muslims, Catholics, Mormons and Buddhists, among other religious and secular representatives, will march to the courthouse steps to rally in support of gay marriage, with thousands of attendees expected.

At the same time, a group of Americans who support California's anti-gay marriage law, as well as keeping the federal government's Defense of Marriage Act (to be tested in a separate case beginning Wednesday), plans to march across the National Mall with prominent pastors and clergy to advocate what they view as a Biblically based stance against same-sex marriage. The Roman Catholic archbishop of San Francisco will be one of that rally's headlining speakers.

The battle over same-sex marriage is often framed in terms of faith, and the landmark cases set to go before the nation's highest court this week have brought two very different sides of religious America to the forefront. In one corner are socially liberal faith groups and secular organizations such as those behind United for Marriage, the coalition of more than 25 faith leaders from across 15 religious traditions that's organizing the early morning prayer and pro-gay marriage rally. Taking the opposite view is the March for Marriage, organized by the National Organization for Marriage with sponsors including evangelical groups such as Focus on the Family and the Catholic organizations Cardinal Newman Society and Catholics Called to Witness. Both sides will draw on religion to advocate for what one calls marriage equality and the other calls traditional marriage.

While there will be no lack of faith-based appeals for and against same-sex marriage, those who favor marriage rights for gay and lesbian couples are taking unprecedented advantage of a growing tide of religious support by holding pray-ins at churches and having ministers lead public events.

The Rev. J. Bennett Guess, a United Church of Christ minister who flew to D.C. to preach at Tuesday's United for Marriage service, said he was honored to participate.

"This court decision is obviously deeply personal for me," said Guess, who is gay, "but it is also a great professional privilege to be able to represent and demonstrate the UCC's pro-marriage equality commitment as part of a large ecumenical, interfaith gathering.”

United for Marriage has organized dozens of pro-gay marriage events across the nation Tuesday, many with the aid of Episcopal, United Church of Christ, Methodist, Unitarian Universalist and other congregations.

Meanwhile, anti-same sex marriage groups, including the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, the Family Research Council and the Southern Baptist Convention's Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, have also made broad calls, each asking for prayers this week in support of keeping laws that bar same-sex marriage on the books.

While leaders of several Washington, D.C., churches, including the Episcopal Washington National Cathedral, are participating in pro-same sex marriage events on Tuesday, phone calls and emails sent to a handful of Catholic and evangelical churches in the D.C. area asking about prayer-related events during the high court cases elicited little response. At the Roman Catholic Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception, the rector told The Huffington Post that Holy Week, the period that leads up to Easter, will likely be the main focus in the coming days.

"I am pretty confident that outside of an intercession for the protection of life and religious liberty and the sanctity of marriage during the Universal Prayer," the emphasis will be on "the Liturgies of Holy Week," Msgr. Walter Rossi wrote in an email. Rossi added that he was out of town and did not have access to the parish's exact schedule.

Still, the chair of the U.S. Catholic Bishops committee on the defense of marriage, Archbishop Salvatore Cordileone of San Francisco, will speak to same-sex marriage opponents on the National Mall on Tuesday, as will the Rev. Eugene Rivers III, a prominent minister who founded Azusa Christian Community in Boston, and the Rev. Bill Owens Sr., founder of the Coalition of African-American Pastors.

In other parts of the country, a handful of other pastors are organizing events tied to the court hearings in D.C. In San Jose, Calif., the Rev. Steven Andrew, founder of a nondenominational USA Christian Ministries, said he has received requests for Biblical literature opposing same-sex marriage from several churches and has gotten "positive response" to a "traditional marriage Internet prayer rally" he is promoting via Facebook.

"My primary concern is the hearts of the nation. God wants Americans to love Him from our hearts so He can bless the USA and get us out of all the troubles," Andrew said. "I want to see Americans walk faithful with God and God's marriage, including the Supreme Court."

Even if religious services in support of same-sex marriage are more visible in certain parts of the country this week, strong religious support can be found on all sides of the debate. A recent survey from the Public Religion Research Institute, released last week, showed that majorities of Jewish Americans (81 percent), religiously unaffiliated Americans (76 percent), Hispanic Catholics (59 percent), white Catholics (58 percent) and white mainline Protestants (55 percent) support legalizing gay marriage. Majorities of white evangelical Protestants (71 percent), Hispanic Protestants (65 percent) and black Protestants (57 percent) said they oppose same-sex marriage.

Overall, just more than half (52 percent) of Americans favor same-sex marriage, the survey found, and younger Americans are more likely than their religious older counterparts to support legalizing it.

CLARIFICATION: This article has been updated to clarify that individual congregations, as opposed to denominations as a whole, are sponsoring United for Marriage events.

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