At open hearings on both coasts this month, the Board of Pensions of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) heard from presbyteries and synods about a proposal that would extend benefits to same-gender spouses and domestic partners.

The 219th General Assembly (2010) approved the resolution, along with an increase in dues of up to 1 percent if needed to fund the cost of additional benefits. The Board formed a committee to study the effects of such a change and will report back to the 220th GA in 2012.

Although both hearings — in Philadelphia and Los Angeles — were attended by dozens, neither took the full three hours designated for the open hearings, which were meant for comments, not questions.

Many of the comments at both meetings centered on the community nature of the benefits plan, the need for fairness from employers and the usefulness of a relief of conscience for congregations opposed to a change in the plan.

The community nature of the plan means that all are included, and to exclude people is to not be the church, said the Rev. Esther Pfeifer, pension liaison for the Presbytery of Central Washington.

Elder Betsy Britton, pension chair for the Presbytery of Long Island, said that given the church’s commitment to justice, she is surprised that same-gender benefits is even a discussion.

But what for some is a justice issue is for others a moral issue, said the Rev. Don Yancey, moderator of the Presbytery of St. Andrew’s committee on preparation for ministry. Many churches are leaving the denomination, and we shouldn’t see them as behind the times but as opposed to taxation without representation, he said.

Paul LaMontagne, stated clerk of the Presbytery of New Brunswick, said that he supports the church’s traditional definition of marriage but also supports same-gender benefits because there’s a difference between our moral judgments and an employer’s responsibility to care for all employees.

The Rev. Paige McRight, executive presbyter of Central Florida Presbytery, said that many people don’t understand the relief of conscience option and how it works. She urged the Board to carefully communicate how that option would work.

The Rev. Glenda Watts, moderator of Heartland Presbytery’s committee on preparation for ministry, said that she doesn’t understand relief of conscience. If a law is passed and she doesn’t like it, she still must obey it, so she wondered why the same would not be true for people who disagree with changing the benefits plan.

The Rev. David Dobler, pastor to the Presbytery of Alaska, said that although the community nature is essential to the fabric of the pension plan, that fabric is tattering and the ties that hold us together are fraying.

“This is far deeper than a simple disagreement,” he said, adding that the issue is how to be two separate and yet united sides. “Relief of conscience is an insufficient remedy for those for whom this is unacceptable.”

The issue of how the church views marriage and relationships won’t be resolved quickly, said the Rev. David Lambertson, executive presbyter of the Presbytery of Central Washington.

“We have been an inclusive church and we will remain an inclusive church,” he said. “I’d like the church to be prophetic and find a way to speak to the issue, but I’d like that to be based on the scripture and our understanding of God’s will”

Some participants questioned how the Board would define domestic partnerships if the change is passed, while others wondered if such a change could be legally ensured.

Others encouraged Presbyterians to continue loving each other and work through this issue in a way that won’t detract from the church’s mission to spread the gospel.

“We need to be keeping love in mind as we work through this in a way that not going to fracture this denomination,” said Elder Jerry Schoening, , a member of the Presbytery of Western Colorado’s committee on preparation for ministry.

Jerry L. Van Marter contributed to this story.