Is the marriage equality debate causing religious congregations to split? The research says no

In the strong religious disputes over marriage equality, many claims arise that these issues cause schisms within congregations and split up religious communities. How accurate are these speculations? A recent Huffington Post article takes up the question and looks at the scholarly research on the subject, and concludes that, actually, debates involving marriage equality and issues of sexuality affect local congregations very little.

It is true that most people, whether they support or oppose marriage equality, consider marriage equality an important issue to their personal morals: In the 2012 Measuring Morality Study, "More than half of Americans say their position on same-sex marriage is from 'moderately' to 'very much' a reflection of their core moral beliefs and convictions."

When it comes to generating conflict within local congregations, however, research indicates that sexuality is very low on the list of causes. According to the 2008-2009 U.S. Congregational Life Survey, the greatest sources of congregational conflict are pastoral leadership issues, finances, and worship changes. Even "concerns over buildings and changes in music style" were ranked as higher sources of conflict within congregations than sexuality, among several other sources.

Another study reported that among all of the religious congregations having a dispute serious enough to call a special meeting within the past two years, the conflict involved issues of sexual orientation in only 3 percent of the cases.

Issues of sexual orientation simply are not viewed as important issues for religious congregations in the grander scheme of things:

In an online survey conducted by The United Methodist Church this spring, members said the most important issues facing the denomination are creating disciples for Christ, getting more youth involved, helping people grow spiritually and addressing membership losses. Issues of sexual orientation and same-sex marriage ranked eighth.

Dawne Moon, sociologist of Marquette University, attributed this lack of importance to the fact that "People are more likely to look for congregations they are comfortable in already…People don't really care as much about the particular denomination as what happens in a congregation." Gays and lesbians in particular, she said, tend to avoid congregations that are hostile to who they are; while people who oppose being gay likewise tend to join congregations that hold similar views.

Cynthia Woolever, who directed the U.S. Congregational Life survey for many years, said that for many congregations, regarding issues of sexual orientation, "it just seems irrelevant."

Read the full article at the Huffington Post.

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