Gay marriage and the eclipse of religious liberty
Ever since the Supreme Court ruled againstthe Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) last June in the landmark Windsor v. United States case, it appears that the United States is one lawsuit away from gay marriage being ensconced as a constitutional right. My hunch is that such a lawsuit will come sooner rather than later, and that the matter could end up before the Court in relatively short order.
After the decision came down, President Barack Obama began saying that gay marriages performed legally in one state should be recognized by every other state in the Union. This matter will be litigated, and — as Justice Antonin Scalia noted in his dissent in the Windsor case — that other shoe is going to drop. The Supreme Court led us to the precipice of legal gay marriage in all 50 states.
As gay marriage moves forward, there is a real question whether proponents will allow any legal accommodation for those who believe that marriage is the union of one man and one woman. It is not only Christians who are in jeopardy here: observant Jews, Muslims and many others all have religious reasons for defining marriage in the traditional way. But will their religious liberty be respected as gay marriage becomes the law of the land?
We have already seen private business owners such as bakers and florists sued by their state governments for not providing services for same-sex weddings. And we’ve also seen Catholic Charities forced to leave Massachusetts for refusing to facilitate adoptions for gay couples.
Last summer, a court in New Mexico ruled against a pair of Christian photographers who were sued for refusing to photograph a same-sex wedding. The Christian couple made clear that they were happy to offer their services to homosexual customers. They simply said that they could not, in good conscience, participate in a same-sex wedding ceremony because it would violate their religious beliefs. The New Mexico court ruled that the photographers’ behavior violated the New Mexico Human Rights Act. And in a stunning opinion, Justice Richard C. Bosson defends the court’s opinion and describes a brave new world for Christians and religious liberty. He writes,
At its heart, this case teaches that at some point in our lives all of us must compromise, if only a little, to accommodate the contrasting values of others. A multicultural, pluralistic society, one of our nation’s strengths, demands no less. The Huguenins are free to think, to say, to believe, as they wish; they may pray to the God of their choice and follow those commandments in their personal lives wherever they lead. The Constitution protects the Huguenins in that respect and much more. But there is a price, one that we all have to pay somewhere in our civic life.
According to this judge, there is a price to pay for being a Christian in a culture that opposes our values: a restriction of our religious liberty.
This judge’s opinion is not unique. The more I read, the more I am concerned that we can expect very little accommodation for religious liberty. Proponents of same-sex marriage are not interested in protecting the religious liberty of traditional marriage supporters. As Ross Douthat points out, “Unless something dramatic changes in the drift of public opinion, the future of religious liberty on these issues is going to depend in part on the magnanimity of gay marriage supporters.”
Yet there is very little evidence of “magnanimity” on the part of gay marriage supporters. On the contrary, there is evidence that many of them would like to see traditional marriage supporters get their comeuppance. Robert George predicts that no compromise will be allowed by gay marriage supporters. He writes:
There is, in my opinion, no chance — no chance — of persuading champions of sexual liberation (and it should be clear by now that this is the cause they serve), that they should respect, or permit the law to respect, the conscience rights of those with whom they disagree. Look at it from their point of view: Why should we permit “full equality” to be trumped by bigotry? Why should we respect religions and religious institutions that are “incubators of homophobia”? Bigotry, religiously based or not, must be smashed and eradicated. The law should certainly not give it recognition or lend it any standing or dignity.
We probably cannot expect the sexual revolutionaries to be magnanimous toward those they regard as bigoted, especially now that the Supreme Court’s majority opinion in the DOMA case renders a similar moral judgment on traditional marriage supporters. Why would anyone want to be magnanimous toward those who — in the words of the Supreme Court — seek to “demean,” to “impose inequality” and a “stigma” on gay people, to deny gay people “equal dignity,” to treat them as “unworthy” and to “humiliate” their children?
This means that Christians and other traditional marriage supporters need to direct great energy to obtaining every religious liberty accommodation possible while there is still time. It may be that the moment is passing us by, and that makes the matter all the more urgent.
We need to be ready for a new reality. We need to be ready to love our neighbors and our enemies and to bear witness in a culture that is increasingly hostile toward us. Some private citizens are already facing fines and other penalties for their convictions on marriage. Any number of negative outcomes are possible in the approaching conflagration. Ours will likely be a costly love and a costly witness. But this is precisely the kind of discipleship that Jesus has called all of us to, and it will be worth it in the end (Matt 16:25).
Denny Burk serves as associate professor of biblical studies and ethics at Boyce College. Along with What is the Meaning of Sex?, he has co-authored several other books and written a number of articles. Dr. Burk comments daily on theology, politics and culture at www.DennyBurk.com. You can also connect with Dr. Burk on Twitterand Facebook .