Couples looking for a wedding venue in Albuquerque, N.M., used to be able to consider the modern, high-tech facilities at Desert Springs Church.
That was then, before the word "marriage" became a legal landmine.
This is now. This nondenominational flock's leaders recently decided that they needed to update their foundation documents for the age after the U.S. Supreme Court's 5-4 decision legalizing same-sex marriage. Thus, their written policies now specify that the only weddings held there will be rites requested by church members -- as in believers who have vowed to honor its doctrinal statement.
On marriage, that doctrinal statement now reads: "We believe that God created human beings in his image in two embodied sexual kinds -- male and female (Genesis 1:26-27). We believe that God designed men and women to unite in marriage, which is complementary, involving one of each sexual gender, exclusive, and permanent." A detailed support document adds: "Gender is a part of God's good creation and is bound to its roots as a biological reality. It is identifiable at birth. …"
In other words, the church's leadership realized that, in this litigious day and age, they would have to define, in highly specific terms rooted in doctrine, who could get married in their church. That would be safer than trying to define -- in a legal crunch -- who could not hold a wedding rite there.
"In some ways, all of this is a bummer," explained the Rev. Trent Hunter, the church's pastor for administration and teaching, in a telephone interview. "You don't go into ministry to be restrictive. You don't want to do things that limit the scope of your ministry. But we're learning that you can't take any of this for granted, because the government is forcing us to be very open and specific about what we believe and why. …
"So we're wearing our beliefs on our sleeves. We have to serve our members with great clarity, and we're trying to serve the public by being as honest as we can be."
There's more to this than weddings. Desert Springs Church also changed its printed policies on what civic or faith groups can meet in its buildings. Once again, church leaders created a direct link between the policy and their doctrinal statement, stating, "our facility is only available for ministries of our church or for ministries we formally partner with" after evaluating the doctrinal commitments of these groups.
All of these changes were based on advice in "Protecting Your Ministry from Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity Lawsuits," a short legal guide prepared for churches, schools and parachurch ministries by the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention and the Alliance Defending Freedom think tank.
Another key issue, especially for religious schools, is clarity in job descriptions. The Supreme Court has clearly stated that religious organizations have every right to take doctrinal issues into account when hiring and firing staff members. However, Desert Springs heeded the legal guide's advice to anticipate future changes, should the government attempt to "distinguish between explicitly religious roles in a church and roles that are not spiritual in nature," wrote Hunter, at the Canon & Culture website.
Thus, the church now specifies -- in writing -- that staff must sign the church doctrinal statement and that "all employees are expected to provide spiritual counsel from the Scriptures over the phone or in person as needed. … In other words, every employee of our church represents Christ in their role and does so in concrete ways."
In the past, the leaders of many religious organizations may have feared clarity on these kinds of issues, in part because they associated ink-on-paper doctrinal statements with ancient creeds and ecclesiastical hierarchies.
Now, Hunter said, some clergy and laypeople may fear negative publicity and even protestors at their front doors.
"We've been running on auto-pilot for a long time and things were going pretty well, or so we thought," he said. "But things have changed. … It's not just legal stuff. We have to change how we explain what we believe to people inside our churches and to the public, as well. We must become more aware -- as pastors -- when we are dealing with people who are involved in all of these issues."