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Five days after North Carolina voters banned gay marriage and four days after President Obama said he supports it, millions of Americans got up yesterday and went to church. Many attend churches that are as divided as the nation at large. This debate has a political side.
Republican Mitt Romney got applause at Liberty University when he said marriage should be between a man and a woman. And his former rival, Rick Santorum, urged Romney to grab what he called a very potent weapon against the president.
For many people, though, this is a very personal moral issue. And that is true in Presbyterian churches that NPR's Joel Rose visited in Philadelphia.
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JOEL ROSE, BYLINE: The Old Pine Street Presbyterian Church has stood for more than 240 years at Philadelphia's Society Hill neighborhood, but it's not what you would call old-fashioned. Reverend Jason Ferris' sermon for Mother's Day focuses on the feminine side of the Holy Spirit. But even in this relatively liberal church, Ferris doesn't say a word about gay marriage from the pulpit, and that's by design.
REVEREND JASON FERRIS: I think our church right now is very divided, and it's probably representative of the general American public. If you took a poll within our church, it would probably come almost right down the middle, that 50 percent of the church would be in favor of same-sex marriage, and 50 percent might be against it.
ROSE: The Presbyterian Church USA, of which Old Pine is a member, does not permit same-sex marriage. But Reverend Ferris thinks attitudes within the church are changing.
LIZ OSTRANDER: For me, it was more a great awakening than an evolution. I came here, and my eyes were opened and my thoughts changed.
ROSE: Liz Ostrander and her husband Dick have been coming to Old Pine since 1971, when they moved to Philadelphia from Ohio.
DICK OSTRANDER: We had very little, if any experience with homosexuality until we moved to this little area in the center city of Philadelphia.
ROSE: Then the Ostranders met their next-door neighbors, David and Jerry.
OSTRANDER: Best neighbors we ever had. Dearest friends. Human beings who share, you know, the same concerns that we share about each other, and we've been married almost 65 years. And I, for one, said hooray when Obama said what he said.
ROSE: But the reaction to president Obama's endorsement of gay marriage was very different just 10 miles away in the Philadelphia suburb of Havertown.
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ROSE: Recorded bells call the faithful to worship at Manoa Community Church. Manoa left the Presbyterian Church USA last year after the church voted to allow gay and lesbian clergy. So perhaps it's no surprise that congregant Lillian Johnston is also opposed to same-sex marriage.
LILLIAN JOHNSTON: Flies in the face of biblical teaching. It's an antithesis to the definition of marriage.
ROSE: Johnston says she wasn't planning to vote for President Obama before his announcement about gay marriage. But the president may have lost the support of Yvette Bethea(ph).
YVETTE BETHEA: Up until last week, I was sold out Obama. But as I'm sitting and watching this on TV, I have to rethink my decision.
ROSE: But Bethea's fellow congregant Gerald Lockhart says his thoughts on gay marriage have changed, just like the presidents'. He even uses the same word to describe that change.
GERALD LOCKHART: I have evolved. You know, you work with gays. You're around gays more. You see them more. They're more visible. You just become more comfortable with it. So that's my hope, that maybe in 50 years from now, it'll be just as normal as interracial couples are.
ROSE: But for now, gay marriage remains sharply divisive, even among people sitting in the same church pew.
Joel Rose, NPR News, Philadelphia.
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