From one married couple to another, Sabrina Chapman and Marilyn Eastridge first accepted rainbow stoles, then a blessing.
“Marilyn and Sabrina, may all the world respect and celebrate your love for each other,” the Rev. Ken Kline Smeltzer said.
To which his wife, the Rev. Bonnie Kline Smeltzer, added: “A love that is blessed by God and recognized by the state of Pennsylvania.”
As about 120 guests packed into a Ferguson Township house smiled, some misty-eyed, similar exchanges followed for three other local gay couples Sunday — the emotional highpoint of a marriage blessing service held to celebrate Pennsylvania’s acceptance of same-sex marriages.
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Besides Chapman and Eastridge, Don Smith and Merrill Budlong, Audrey Smith and Colby Woodring, and Ron Gebhardtsbauer and Greg Wright — all wed in other states — stood before friends, fellow University Baptist and Brethren Church members and other proud witnesses, honoring their ties and marriage equality in general.
“The legal sanction was very important,” Chapman said. “But this additional sense of spiritual wholeness that came through what was said today is wonderful.”
Gebhardtsbauer and Wright provided their home for the service and a backyard reception. They were among the plaintiffs in a federal lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of Pennsylvania preventing gay couples from legally marrying.
Their challenge led to U.S. District Judge John E. Jones III’s ruling in May that overturned the state’s ban and legalized same-sex marriages. Gov. Tom Corbett declined to appeal.
At present, 19 states allow same-sex marriages to be performed, entitling gay couples to the same legal and civil rights as straight ones. Thirteen more have ruled bans unconstitutional, though appeals are pending in some.
Wright said he and his spouse couldn’t be married in their community and at UBBC, their congregation, as they wished. So they went to Maryland last fall to exchange vows.
“We promised our church congregation that if and when Pennsylvania ever rolled around, we’d throw a huge party,” Wright said. “So we did.
“But it was funny: When we first started planning this, we both felt uncomfortable having our blessing ceremony just for us, because we felt that this was much, much bigger than just the two of us, and we didn’t want to be in the spotlight.”
They decided a service for themselves “just didn’t feel right,” Wright said.
“So we found three other couples who felt the same way and asked if they would join us,” he said.
To start the service, soloist Nicola Kiver and other UBBC choir members sang “Somewhere” from the musical “West Side Story,” opening with: “There’s a place for us, somewhere a place for us.”
“Friends, somehow, someday, somewhere is here and now,” Bonnie Kline Smeltzer said afterward.
“Somewhere is here in this place, in this gathering of friends and family, for it is time. It’s time to bless and celebrate a new way of living. It is a time to bless and to celebrate love long shared and committed.”
Kline Smeltzer said it was “really important” to her to be an officiant for the ceremony.
“I’m a pastor to three of the four couples that were involved here, and I really think it’s part of my role as pastor to offer all the services, rituals and rites of the church to all the couples that are part of our church family,” she said.
“It’s been hard to see these couples run off to another state to have their marriages legalized, when, really, what they wanted to do was celebrate with their church family, to have the blessing of their church family and to have God’s blessing. So today is kind of long-awaited, a dream that has come true for all of us: for me as their pastor and for each of the couples.”
That kind of support cost her husband his job.
Almost a year ago, he was fired from his congregation — a local Church of the Brethren parish he has not identified — after marrying two men at the home of State College Mayor Elizabeth Goreham in defiance of his church’s stance on same-sex marriages.
During Sunday’s ceremony, Chapman and Eastridge made a point of commending the pastors.
“Bonnie and Ken, we want to thank you for your courageous devotion to marriage equality,” Chapman said. “And we also appreciate how much you’ve done for social justice issues throughout.”
Added Eastridge: “For these reasons, dear friends, and many more, we are honored to have you celebrate our blessing service today. We four couples were greatly joyed when we were able to legally sanction our marriages, but it is this blessing that we will most cherish.”
Gebhardtsbauer thanked the guests for attending.
“I hope you realize how important you are to us, and I don’t even know if I can put it into words, but it’s given us a foundation and a floor upon which we can stand and fight the good fight.”
Later in the ceremony, everyone read a statement of love and support together.
“Bud and Don, Marilyn and Sabrina, Ron and Greg, Audrey and Colby, you and countless others have had to wait too long for the societal acceptance of who you are and the church blessing of your relationships of love and marriage,” guests said.
“Too long have you waited for justice and equality to prevail in your lives. We give thanks that we can now celebrate marriage equality with you and so many others who have waited and struggled for this day to arrive.”
A friend of Chapman and Eastridge, Jane Jenks-Small spent part of her 92nd birthday joining in the applause at the end for all the happy couples.
“I’ve always been for equality in every way, all my life,” she said.
For Audrey Smith, the ceremony fulfilled her and her spouse’s wish to have their marriage blessed once it was legal in Pennsylvania.
The daughter of a conservative pastor, Smith said that her family, previous church and many friends didn’t embrace her orientation and relationship with Woodring.
“We found UBBC, and it was a welcoming and affirming congregation,” she said. “We were really happy because we’re both people of faith, and it was important for us to belong to a church that was supportive of our relationship.”
Smith said Sunday’s ceremony was “very meaningful” to her and her spouse.
“We thought it would be nice to have the (Smeltzers) bless our marriage because I felt it was more like an official announcement that we’re in the circle,” she said.
Wright said he and his spouse invited young families in the hope that the children remember the afternoon’s joy and love, and come to view same-sex marriages as no different than traditional ones.
“I know not everybody is happy about it, but I’m thinking as time goes by, people will get more comfortable with us because we’re just like everybody else,” he said.
Now, to go along with his wedding band, he’s got full civil and legal rights — and the pleasure of a memorable summer day with the love of his life.
“It just means I’m normal like anyone else,” he said. “I don’t feel like I have to keep this in the closet any more. And I’m sanctioned by the state, so I have the support of the state. It makes a difference.”