French Catholic Priest Plans To Marry Same-Sex Couples In New Job As Mayor

In a tiny village in Brittany, France, the mayor is also the local Catholic priest. As a mayor, Elie Geffray will soon be officiating over same-sex unions even though the Catholic Church opposes gay marriage and adoption. He notes that France is a secular democracy and that allows Muslims, Catholics, Protestants and atheists to live together. And says he believes the Catholic Church made a mistake by getting involved in the gay marriage debate.

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The French parliament is in a contentious debate over legalizing marriage and adoption for same-sex couples. France has civil unions for gays, but the country is divided on the next steps. Opposition to gay marriage has come from the rural heartland where traditional values and the Catholic Church still hold sway. But for this next story, Eleanor Beardsley visited a village in Brittany that has grabbed the country's attention because the mayor there is also the local Catholic priest, and he supports same-sex marriage and adoptions.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHURCH BELLS)

ELEANOR BEARDSLEY, BYLINE: Sunday bells call the faithful to worship in the village of Ereac, population 650. People in this farming village have lived to the rhythm of the church bells and the four seasons for centuries. And even though the number of worshipers who regularly attend Mass is only a fraction of what it once was, traditions are still strong.

Elie Geffray was born in Ereac in 1939, the year World War II broke out, he says. Today, Geffray is Ereac's priest and was also recently elected its mayor. We sit down in his office in the town hall.

MAYOR ELIE GEFFRAY: (Through Translator) Secularism is the great virtue of French democracy. It allows people of different convictions - Muslims, Catholics, atheists - to live together. I'm very attached to this principle because I must distinguish between the religious and the political in my two functions, and we must never mix them.

BEARDSLEY: Geffray says he supports same-sex marriage and adoption rights because he believes it is now time for gay citizens to be fully recognized and have equal rights. When the law passes, as is expected, Geffray will officiate over same-sex marriages in his capacity as mayor. Geffray believes the Catholic Church made a huge mistake by getting involved in the debate over same-sex marriage.

GEFFRAY: (Through Translator) Civil and religious marriages are completely separate in France because of our doctrine of secularism, and the church should deal only with religious issues and leave political questions for citizens.

BEARDSLEY: When the law does pass, says Geffray, the French republic will be more welcoming to gays than the French Catholic Church, and that's something that bothers him.

(SOUNDBITE OF CROWD)

BEARDSLEY: The only bar cafe in Ereac attracts the old and young. Two men who look to be in their mid-30s say they're not particularly in favor of gay marriage...

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Foreign language spoken)

BEARDSLEY: ...and they're definitely against same-sex couples adopting.

PHILIPPE LADAIS: (Foreign language spoken)

BEARDSLEY: Everyone feels that way around here, says Philippe Ladais. We think things should stay the way they've always been. Polls show 40 percent of French Catholics support gay marriage, as does 63 percent of the general population, but far fewer people support same-sex adoption. Cecile Gastine says people here are afraid.

CECILE GASTINE: There are many big families with children, parents, great parents, and there are big farm, and they all work together. I think they want to conservate their tradition, yes.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHURCH SERVICE)

BEARDSLEY: In his sermon, Geffray talks of the importance of sometimes changing traditions to be humane and to welcome all people. Villager Agnes Goudin is listening. She grew up in the Catholic Church and now brings her three kids to Mass regularly.

AGNES GOUDIN: (Through Translator) Personally, I'm open to a lot of things, and I teach my kids tolerance. The mayor's viewpoint doesn't bother me. I, too, have my own views, and they don't keep me from being religious.

BEARDSLEY: Goudin says she hasn't really made up her mind about same-sex marriage, but she says she's sure gay couples have just as much love to give to children as other couples do.

Eleanor Beardsley, NPR news.

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