A milestone reached in mainline Protestant churches’ decades-old disputes over LGBTQ inclusion

May 5, 2024, 8:00 PM | Updated: May 6, 2024, 6:59 am

The Rev. David Meredith, left, and the Rev. Austin Adkinson sing during a gathering of those in the...

The Rev. David Meredith, left, and the Rev. Austin Adkinson sing during a gathering of those in the LGBTQ community and their allies outside the Charlotte Convention Center, in Charlotte, N.C., Thursday, May 2, 2024. (AP Photo/Peter Smith, File)

(AP Photo/Peter Smith, File)

The fight to allow same-sex marriage and gay clergy has defined much of the last half-century for major mainline Protestant denominations in the U.S., mirroring in many ways the broader fight for LGBTQ+ inclusion in civic life.

Within these theologically moderate-to-progressive Protestant groups, the decades of wrestling over whether to reaffirm or overturn longstanding anti-LGBTQ+ church policies sowed deep divisions throughout the denominations. It’s caused hurt feelings, broken relationships, disciplinary church trials and schisms.

The United Methodist Church, which stripped out its bans and related social teachings over the past two weeks, is the last of the major mainline church bodies to go through this process.

This timeline highlights key milestones and flashpoints within the UMC, Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), Episcopal Church, Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, United Church of Christ, as well as in civic life.

June 28, 1969 Police raid the Stonewall Inn, an underground gay bar in New York City. It sparked a rebellion and fueled the modern LGBTQ+ rights movement.

April 1972 The United Methodist Church has first public debate on homosexuality at a General Conference. The conference approves non-binding Social Principles, declaring the “practice of homosexuality … incompatible with Christian teaching.” It also says “persons of homosexual orientation are persons of sacred worth.”

June 25, 1972 William R. Johnson becomes the first openly gay person to be ordained a minister in the United Church of Christ.

September 1979 Episcopal Church General Convention approves resolution saying it is “not appropriate for this church to ordain a practicing homosexual or any person who is engaged in heterosexual relations outside of marriage.” It also says homosexual people have an equal claim on the church’s love and acceptance.

May 1984 United Methodist General Conference approves rule declaring that “self-avowed practicing homosexuals are not to be accepted as candidates, ordained as ministers, or appointed to serve.”

Feb. 28, 1994 The federal “ don’t ask, don’t tell ” policy goes into effect, allowing gay and lesbian people to serve in the U.S. military only if they don’t openly acknowledge their sexual orientation. A prior policy barred them altogether.

May 1996 Episcopal Bishop Walter C. Righter goes on trial in the church for heresy for ordaining an openly gay man as a deacon. He is later acquitted.

July 5, 1996 Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) General Assembly bans noncelibate gay clergy, requiring church officers to live in “fidelity within the covenant of marriage between a man and a woman or chastity in singleness.”

Sept. 21, 1996 The federal Defense of Marriage Act is signed into law, limiting federal recognition of marriage to heterosexual couples.

June 7, 2003 Gene Robinson is elected the first openly gay bishop in the Episcopal Church.

Nov. 18, 2003 Massachusetts becomes the first to legalize same-sex marriage statewide.

July 4, 2005 United Church of Christ General Synod affirms marriage rights for all couples regardless of gender.

June 22, 2009 The Anglican Church in North America forms. It is led by a breakaway group of mostly former Episcopalians who disagreed with the Episcopal Church’s decision to allow an openly gay person to be a bishop, and other theological issues.

August 21, 2009 Evangelical Lutheran Church in America’s Churchwide Assembly allows partnered gay and lesbian people to be pastors.

August 27, 2010 The Rev. Jane Spahr is found guilty in a Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) trial on misconduct charges for presiding over same-gender marriage ceremonies.

August 27, 2010 North American Lutheran Church, a conservative denomination formed in response to liberal trends in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, is constituted.

May 10, 2011 Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) ratifies amendment that opens the door to LGBTQ clergy, removing a requirement that clergy “live either in fidelity within the covenant of marriage between a man and a woman or chastity in singleness.”

Sept. 20, 2011 “Don’t ask, don’t tell” law repealed.

January 2012 The Evangelical Covenant Order of Presbyterians forms. Conservative congregations joined this and older breakaway denominations in response to liberal trends in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.).

May 31, 2013 R. Guy Erwin becomes the first openly gay bishop elected in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.

November 2013 The Rev. Frank Schaefer is found guilty in a United Methodist Church trial for performing his son’s same-sex wedding in 2007.

March 17, 2015 Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) ratifies amendment to its constitution calling marriage a “unique commitment between two people,” no longer limited to a couple consisting of one man and one woman.

June 26, 2015 United States Supreme Court legalizes same-sex marriage nationwide.

July 1, 2015 The Episcopal Church permits any couple the rite of matrimony.

July 16, 2016 Karen Oliveto becomes the United Methodist Church’s first openly lesbian bishop.

May 8, 2021 Megan Rohrer becomes the first openly transgender bishop in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.

May 1, 2022 Global Methodist Church launches. This is a breakaway group that left the United Methodist Church over its lack of enforcement of its bans on gay clergy and same-sex marriage.

April 23 to May 3, 2024 United Methodists dismantle their denomination’s anti-LGBTQ policies and teachings, including lifting bans on same-sex marriage and gay clergy.

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A milestone reached in mainline Protestant churches’ decades-old disputes over LGBTQ inclusion