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DAVID GREENE, HOST:

Yesterday on MORNING EDITION, we heard from a Colorado voter who's opposed to gay marriage.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: I'm not really religious, but I believe in the Bible. And in Bible it states, you know, a man and a woman.

GREENE: And many Americans share that sentiment, citing the Bible as the reason. Then again, President Obama also cited the Bible in favor of gay marriage.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: The thing, you know, at root that we think about is not only Christ sacrificing himself on our behalf, but it's also the Golden Rule. You know? Treat others the way you'd want to be treated.

GREENE: The president there is citing a statement attributed to Jesus in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke.

NPR's Barbara Bradley Hagerty has been asking how people draw such different meanings from the same book.

BARBARA BRADLEY HAGERTY, BYLINE: It's true, says Carmen Fowler LaBerge, you can be a Christian and support same sex marriage. But she says...

CARMEN FOWLER LABERGE: Nobody can say gay marriage is biblical. That's just foolishness.

HAGERTY: LaBerge resigned her post as minister in the Presbyterian Church USA after the denomination voted last year to ordain non-celibate gay clergy. She says the Bible is clear.

LABERGE: From the Old Testament and throughout the New Testament, the only sexual relationships that are affirmed in scripture are those in the context of marriage between one man and one woman.

HAGERTY: Well, the Old Testament does condone polygamy. Still, LaBerge says, from Leviticus to Paul's writings in Romans and First Corinthians, homosexual acts are called vile and detestable. And legalizing same sex relationships does not change the sin.

Not so fast, says Reverend Susan Russell, an Episcopal priest at All Saints Church in Pasadena, California. She takes her cues from Jesus.

REVEREND SUSAN RUSSELL: Jesus never said a single word about anything even remotely connected to homosexuality.

HAGERTY: Jesus does say the most important commandments are love God and love your neighbor as yourself. And given that, Russell believes if Jesus were here today, he would celebrate committed same-sex relationships. She says you take the Bible literally at your folly.

RUSSELL: When you read the Bible, you can find justification for almost anything, including slavery, the subjection of women, and an argument that the sun actually revolves around the Earth.

HAGERTY: Russell and other liberal Christians argue the Bible is the living word of God, and much like the U.S. Constitution needs to be interpreted as society changes. But Carmen LaBerge says the issue is which has more sway, the Bible or culture?

LABERGE: There's a stream of faith that would recognize that the Bible continues to have authority and that we are obligated to submit ourselves, and our wills, our desires to it. And there's a stream of faith that would say that human experience actually trumps or is an authority over the Bible at this point.

HAGERTY: Homosexual behavior is a fault line splitting Christian denominations in two - Episcopalians, Methodists, Presbyterians, Catholics. There's even a wide gulf between young and old evangelicals. But nowhere is this question more fraught than in African-American churches, says Tony Evans. He pastors the 9,000 member Oak Cliff Bible Fellowship in Dallas. One reason, he says, is cultural.

REVEREND TONY EVANS: The breakdown of the family is the single greatest challenge that we face today.

HAGERTY: Evans and others say the black family is in crisis. A majority of babies, for example, are born to single mothers, and that's why black ministers are often the most vocal opponents of same sex marriage. Asked about the argument that this is a civil rights issue, Evans bristles.

EVANS: The issue of race is not an issue of choice. It's an issue of birth.

HAGERTY: Does that mean that homosexuality is a choice?

EVANS: The Bible is clear on that one too. And that is sexual relationships are to be between men and women within the context of marriage. That's not only related to the issue of homosexuality, but adultery or fornication or bestiality. I mean all of that is proscribed in the Bible.

REVEREND GRAYLAN HAGLER: Of course it's a civil rights issue.

HAGERTY: Graylan Hagler, the pastor of Plymouth Congregational United Church of Christ in Washington, notes that there are plenty of blacks who are gay, and they too should have access to that God-given institution: marriage. To Hagler, legitimizing marriage for committed gay couples is precisely what the Bible envisioned.

HAGLER: I just think of the words from Galatians where it says there is neither Greeks nor Jew, male nor female, slave nor free. And what is happening there is that they're pointing to what the kingdom of God looks like, is that it's open to everybody and everybody has equal status.

HAGERTY: Of course, conservatives say that the best blueprint for God's kingdom on Earth does not spring from what you read between the lines of the Bible, but what you read in black and white.

Barbara Bradley Hagerty, NPR News.

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