Yes to Same-sex Unions in the Chapel


Concurring with the recommendation of a committee of faculty, staff, students, alumni, and trustees, Duke President Nannerl O. Keohane and Dean of the Chapel William Willimon announced in December that the celebration of same-sex unions for members of the university community will be permitted in Duke Chapel. "Our major rationale for this change is our convictionŠthat Duke has a wonderful tradition of rich religious diversity," Keohane and Willimon wrote in a letter thanking the committee for its deliberations on the issue. "We now feel, as a result of the discussion on campus during the past three months, and the work of your committee, that we ought to allow these unions to be celebrated by those clergy who are allowed, by their religious communities, to officiate at such ceremonies."

Such unions between members of the same gender had been prohibited in the chapel, primarily because the United Methodist Church, with which Duke is affiliated, does not permit them. However, as Keohane and Willimon noted, Duke Chapel is not tied to a particular denomination, and is a university facility. "No one has suggested that we ask any clergy to perform these unions if that clergy person, by reason of conscience, conviction, or church tradition, does not wish to do so," they said.

In a prepared statement, Charlene P. Kammerer, resident bishop of the North Carolina Conference of the United Methodist Church, said: "While Duke University has a historic tie and affiliation with the United Methodist Church, the university has always been independent in governance. The Duke Chapel has never been a United Methodist Church. Currently, twenty religious groups comprise the Religious Life staff, which serves the university community. Some of these have approved the same-sex unions and are furnishing liturgies to accompany such services in Duke Chapel. It remains clear that no United Methodist pastor shall officiate in such services."

Although the new policy conflicts with the United Methodist Church's position, "it reflects an open spirit of hospitality and pastoral care to the wider Duke University community," according to Bishop Kammerer's statement. "The administration of Duke University has the right to make such policy and has sought to do so in a spirit of thoughtful deliberation, consultation with constituent groups, and in recognition of the university's nondiscrimination policy and with sensitivity to the richness and diversity of religious life at its core."

Not all were happy with the decision. Eric D. Adler, a graduate student and spokesman for the Duke Conservative Union, told The Chronicle of Higher Education: "The law in this country allows people of the opposite sex to marry each other. The fact that homosexuals...cannot exercise that right does not lead to discrimination."

A committee of twelve, established in October to review chapel policy barring such unions, was chaired by Anne Hodges-Copple '79, the Episcopal chaplain at Duke. It met seven times and reported to Keohane and Willimon. The committee was made up of representatives from the Graduate and Professional School Student Council; the Wesley Fellowship of the United Methodist Campus Ministry; the faculty; the academic and university administrations; the United Methodist Church; the Duke board of trustees; and the vice president for institutional equity.

According to established policy on marriages-and now same-sex union celebrations-in Duke Chapel, only alumni, students, faculty, employees, and their adult children are allowed to reserve the facility for services. The decision follows similar action in October by the Freeman Center for Jewish Life. Its board of directors approved a policy that permits same-sex union ceremonies at the center because the Reform Movement now permits rabbis to officiate at such unions between two Jewish people. In addition, same-sex union ceremonies have been sanctioned and performed in the Sarah P. Duke Gardens.

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