In the culmination of a three-year battle with university administrators who had sought to prevent the ceremony, a lesbian couple participated in a same-sex union in Wake Forest University's Wait Chapel earlier this month.
Forty-two-year-old Susan Parker and forty-six-year-old Wendy Scott made their covenant in front of a few hundred people, including many gay rights advocates.
"[We feel] a certain amount of relief, as one would expect in any circumstances where you have worked for a long time for something important in your relationship," said Parker, a student at Wake's Divinity School. "More than anything, [the hardest part was] dealing with people's fears about what a service like this looks like. People are so used to the traditional service, there is a lot of uncertainty what it means when two people of the same gender do it."
Parker described the ceremony as a time for the community to gather before God and said she has heard mostly positive feedback about it. "Granted, we don't have legal standing, but that has nothing to do with how we're viewed by God," she said.
The ceremony was performed by the minister and other members of the Wake Forest Baptist Church, where the women worship. Wake Forest Baptist is an autonomous church that worships in Wait Chapel and is loosely affiliated with Wake Forest University.
Since its founding in 1834, Wake Forest University has been closely affiliated with the Baptist faith, and has remained so even after 1986, when the university became an independent entity.
The Baptist State Convention of North Carolina last year moved toward ending this connection by eliminating mention of the university in its constitution. This decision was partially a result of Wake Forest's new policy on same-sex unions.
Dennis Potter, a Wake Forest senior who has spoken out against the ceremony, said that although he recognizes that Wake Forest Baptist is an independent organization, he feels that the university should have honored its religious roots. "I've lost a lot of respect for the [university] administration," he said. "I think they should have stood up for their beliefs. [They] aren't recognizing that the church speaks volumes about how it is completely contrary to what people who read and believe the Bible know."
Potter said he thinks the priests were trying to make a social statement and, in doing so, abandoned the teachings of the church.
Martin Price, executive chair of Wake Forest's Gay-Straight Student Alliance, disagrees. "I believe that gay people should have the same right to open expression of their love and commitment as anybody else," he said. "I cannot think of a reason why we [homosexuals] should face discrimination in this way."
The covenant was made possible by a decision by Wake Forest President Thomas Hearn, who chose last year to reject a Board of Trustees recommendation against holding same-sex unions on campus.
The Wake Forest University policy now allows same-sex ceremonies in Wait Chapel, but nowhere else on campus.
Duke's policy allows these ceremonies to be held anywhere on campus except in the Chapel.