Steven Carr, left, and David Bannister Jr. plan to marry at Highland Baptist Church next May in the first gay wedding at the church. / Jacob Zimmer, The (Louisville, Ky.) Courier-Journal
LOUISVILLE, Ky. -- They have lived together for five years. They have a garden and a dog. They have a joint bank account. But only recently did they have the right to be married at their church.
David Bannister Jr., 29, and Steven Carr, 25, are to be married next May at Highland Baptist Church, which will break with most churches in its denomination by performing its first gay marriage ceremony.
"It takes courage to step out into the unknown," said Pastor Joe Phelps, who was approached by Bannister and Carr about the ceremony 2 1/2 years ago. "It's taking us courage to be one of the first churches to do this."
As state law stands, the marriage will not be recognized by the state of Kentucky, which is appealing court rulings overturning its ban on gay marriage and requiring it to recognize same-sex marriages performed in other states.
The judge stayed the decision, halting any legal gay marriages for now.
The church's decision "may influence the debate," said Sam Marcosson, a law professor at the University of Louisville.
"What Highland is really doing is what churches do on important issues," he said. "They're taking a stand in order to influence their community and move their community in a certain direction."
The church's move is part of a trend toward gay marriage across the country.
Besides recent court decisions on the matter, the Presbyterian Church of the USA in June voted to allow pastors in its congregations to perform same-sex marriages. In recent years, the Episcopal Church began blessing same-sex unions and the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America decided to allow ministers to perform gay marriages if they choose.
The decisions did not come without some consternation, however, and that was true for Highland Baptist. The church's decision has irked some members, who have been upset over the process in which the decision was reached - and made public - as well as the decision itself.
"There are a very small number in the church" who are upset, Phelps said. "And to their credit, they have stayed with the church through all of this."
Reaching its decision
Highland Baptist, which has about 1,200 congregants and integrates women into its leadership, already falls on the more liberal end of the denomination's spectrum.
It left the conservative Southern Baptist Convention - the world's largest Baptist denomination - about 20 years ago. The church has done the same with other affiliations because of theological differences, Phelps said. Highland is now affiliated with the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship and the Kentucky Baptist Fellowship.
It will become one of the first Baptist churches in the area to perform same-sex marriages.
When Phelps first arrived at Highland Baptist in 1997, he said there was a don't ask, don't tell policy regarding gays.
The following year, a gay couple's photograph appeared in the church directory, and slowly the church began to openly welcome lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender members and dedicate their children, he said.
In 2012, it ordained an openly gay minister, the Rev. Maurice "Bojangles" Blanchard, who leads a gay ministry at the church.
"Inch by inch, it sort of begins to dawn on us," Phelps said. "Over time, we've come to the realization that led us to today."
Blanchard said that before the deacons' recent decision, he felt conflicted preaching that Highland was completely accepting.
"It was a struggle," he said. "How do you live up to this stance when you're not completely inclusive?"
Two and a half years ago, Bannister and Carr - who don't claim to be activists - approached Phelps and shared their desire to be married at the church.
"If people don't get the shades pulled back on LGBT people's lives, they won't learn. They won't see," Bannister said. "So the onus is on us and our friends to talk with those around us."
The church formed a subgroup of deacons in February 2013 to study the idea of same-sex weddings and met a few times before postponing the matter because of other pressing issues, according to a church newsletter.
But a new subgroup formed this spring, and it reached its unanimous conclusion on same-sex marriage in May. During that time, the matter was never brought before the church for discussion or a vote, as originally intended.
Word then spread on social media before the church made its announcement in its weekly newsletter, upsetting some members of the congregation, Phelps said.
"Since it was a work in progress, (the deacons) didn't feel like there was a need to update the church," Phelps said. Frankly, in retrospect, they probably should have."
He added that nothing in church bylaws required the deacons to bring the issue up for a vote, and as time passed, a vote seemed inappropriate.
"To vote on it is to basically ask the question, 'Are gay people fully human like the rest of us?' I think spiritually and morally, that's a step we cannot take," he said.
A state undecided
Highland Baptist's move comes amid an array of headlines on the issue.
On June 20, Louisville Mayor Greg Fischer became one of nearly 500 members of Mayors for the Freedom to Marry, a project of the national group Freedom to Marry.
On June 25, a district judge in Indiana struck down an appeal to ban sex-sex marriage in the state, and in Utah, the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals found such a ban unconstitutional.
U.S. District Judge John G. Heyburn II ruled Tuesday that same-sex couples have the right to marry in Kentucky.
He stayed the ruling until the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals decides gay-marriage cases from Kentucky and three other states.
Kentucky already was appealing Heyburn's Feb. 26 ruling that required the commonwealth to recognize same-sex marriages legally performed outside the state.
Gov. Steve Beshear has hired an out-of-state law firm to handle the appeal after Attorney General Jack Conway declined to appeal Heyburn's ruling. Last week, Beshear defended his legal team's arguments, which Heyburn derided as "not those of serious people."
Marcosson said the case centers on a few questions: whether the fundamental right to marry - protected by the Constitution - includes same-sex couples; whether the constitutional right to equal protection protects same-sex couples from being treated differently; and when it comes to both those points, do the states have sufficient, legitimate reasons for upholding current policies.
t He said it is almost certain that the U.S. Supreme Court will take up some of the circuit court cases to decide the matter once and for all.
It's just another bump in the road for Bannister and Carr. They said their relationship already has gone through graduations, job changes and income fluctuations.
"Once we go through those big life transitions, the rest seems like a cakewalk," Carr said.
The couple only recently started planning their wedding date. They're also still deciding where they'll go to be legally married.
Carr, a Louisville native, is holding out hope for his home state.
"It's my city," he said. "I have so much pride for it. I'd like to get my marriage license here."
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