The staggering decisions of the U.S. Supreme Court on same-sex marriage will reverberate throughout our culture for decades to come. I have no doubt that this is only the first of more such decisions that will progressively lead us to a culture-wide legal acceptance of same-sex marriage. I have been saying as much for at least five years. The demographics of those who favor same-sex marriage clearly show that our democracy will very likely embrace this huge social change much sooner than later.
I have a number of responses to this change that I hope will shed light on the debate. I hope to offer a reasonable, just and missional way forward for Christians in an increasingly secular culture. Before I comment, however, please understand that I am primarily interested in “the church being the church” in all cultures and contexts. I am not deeply motivated by partisan political debate about this issue.
This statement of my approach to this highly contentious issue does not mean that I think that the church should cease to be public about Christian ethics and morality. It does mean that our agenda should never be to force the culture, even if we could, to adopt the beliefs of some (not all I remind us in this observation) Christians through partisan political wrangling. This kind of wrangling in public has already led an entire generation to believe that the church is made up of mean, angry and bigoted people who are determined to impose their religion on the general public and to reject them and their friends!
I also confess that I am not an expert on constitutional law. I did take a fantastic course on the subject in college, which was one of the hardest classes I ever had in my four-year undergraduate studies. This simple course of study does not make me an expert, just a thoughtful citizen who tries to understand the court and its decisions.
Supreme Court decisions are highly technical arguments. They are legal “opinions.” Having said this these opinions do matter quite profoundly, at least in some cases, and will have an impact on how the law is understood and applied in the years ahead. Justice Scalia struck this chord in his dissent regarding DOMA (Defense of Marriage Act) by writing that this majority decision was a set-up for more cases that would strike down all state laws defining marriage as only between a man and a woman. To me, as a lay reader, I think this almost surely will be the case. Many more cases are likely to arise in almost every state. I think the highest court will eventually rule on these matters at some point and then more decisions are likely to lead us to the place where marriage is embraced in a way that (legally) includes same-sex unions in every state. Millions of dollars will be spent, much of it by older conservative Christians, trying to stop this from happening but I feel fairly sure that this train left the station ten days ago and this money and effort will not be well spent.
I have studied these two particular cases in some detail. I believe that in both rulings the argument of the majority was very badly reasoned. Let me explain.
The Supreme Court ruled that Section 3 of DOMA cannot be used to allow the federal government to limit marital benefits only to opposite-sex couples. This was accomplished by the majority’s judgment that Section 3 was unconstitutional. Thus a legally married same-sex couple, legally married in a state that already accepts same-sex marriage, can now receive federal benefits such as the spousal benefits of Social Security and Medicaid. The Obama Administration has already ruled that married military personnel will get these benefits if they are legally married as same-sex couples.
In the second case, decided by another 5-4 decision, the parties that challenged an earlier court decision that ruled against Proposition 8 in California, a public referendum in which the citizens of the state voted by a 52% majority to define marriage to be between a man and a woman, was rejected. A lower court had ruled against Prop 8 and the Supreme Court (in effect) said the suit brought to them against this court’s ruling had no “legal” standing. This decision, at least I believe, is even more legally questionable than the one on DOMA. The California Supreme Court had already ruled that Prop 8 was legal, though suspect under the constitution of the state. A single federal judge in San Francisco has ruled against Prop 8 and this decision was appealed to the famous, or infamous, Ninth Circuit federal court, which upheld the decision of the single judge. The majority, led by the more “conservative” Chief Justice John Roberts said that the parties never had a legal standing to be before the Supreme Court, thus handing this matter back to the Ninth Circuit Court. The result is that same-sex marriage is again legal in California even though the people voted against it by a 52% majority.
Blogger Rob Schenck is correct when he says all of this means these cases were limited but the language Justice Kennedy “uses in his majority opinion is, at times, shocking.” Kennedy uses “accusatory and insulting language to impugn the motives of all supporters of DOMA.” The supporters of DOMA, in case you have forgotten the 1990s and how it was passed by Congress and signed by President Clinton. Adds Rob Schenck, “
I have no doubt that many are guilty of “spiteful and malevolent ill will” about same-sex marriage but such action is within the range of legal protection and should not be treated as a matter of law in this instance. Demeaning anyone takes us into human psychology and the majority opinion suggests that the members of Congress, even President Clinton in the 1990s, acted with bad intentions!
The California decision is a bit of a cop-out but the DOMA decision is poorly argued and badly made. Why? It assumes too much about human practice and morality. The majority of human civilizations, and almost all monotheistic faith traditions, have argued that same-sex unions are contrary to natural law as well as divinely revealed moral teaching. Here is the question I would ask the justices: “Do we simply throw away millennia of brilliant philosophical, legal and moral teaching, teaching given by countless people and cultures (the overwhelming majority by a landslide) by saying the entire position was motivated by ‘improper animus’?”
Tomorrow I will suggest what believers in traditional marriage should do in the light of these terrible and poorly argued legal decisions. These decisions, as I have indicated, are likely (Justice Scalia argued this point) to open the door to many worse decisions that will alter marriage for generations to come. So then, what shall we do?
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There is some comfort, from my perspective at least, in knowing that unjust laws and judicial rulings (which are not laws at all but injustices, and when enforced tyranny) have no binding force on a citizen’s conscience. They can be disregarded (and publicly) so long as care is taken not to give scandal, i.e. the “law” breaker must take steps to convey the sound reasons for non-compliance and not engender contempt for the legitimate exercise of governmental authority. There will be consequences, perhaps materially awful and life-altering ones, for such civil disobedience — this is the way of things — but they can be suffered with a clear conscience. Too, the witness of the suffering can go a long way as an instrument for the conversion and repentance of others who will wonder at men and women willing to suffer for some truth they don’t yet understand or for which they have previously lost their conviction. The flip-side is that if a significant number of men and women of good will, small business owners, and other decent citizens whose activities (individual or collective) have some import in their local communities will act in concert to ignore and contravene what state-mandated acceptance of homosexual “marriages” may require under law (and all this in charity and meekness), the impact on prosecutors’ offices and court dockets will create something of a stalemate and help turn the issue back to legislatures.
The other thing that is coming — there are already wide rumblings — is a broad social pressure campaign of a character and impact not yet seen. These campaigns will be quasi-legal, if not illegal, but that will not really matter given that very many in leadership positions (local courts, DAs, city councils, etc.) are presently quite sympathetic to the advancement of LGBT “equality”. The campaigns’ purpose will be to scare people into silence and pinch in their wallets and careers those who will not be silent: denial of employment and/or job advancement; denial of or loss of club and association memberships; denial of loans, scholarships and other funding opportunities; denial of school admission. I fear many good Christians will feel caught between being publicly faithful to Christ on the one hand and establishing-protecting-advancing their career (and family welfare) on the other hand. This will lead many to eventual apostasy, may foment schism and heresy, and is I think a reality that many Christians in this country are simply not prepared to face at the present time.
Thank-you John for laying the foundation for understanding where the decisions have brought us legally and where the situation is heading socially. I look forward to your recommendations.
Polygamy will be next.
There may be no limits on what will be next. And “caught between” is already a reality for many Christians.
“The majority of human civilizations, and almost all monotheistic faith traditions, have argued that same-sex unions are contrary to natural law as well as divinely revealed moral teaching. Here is the question I would ask the justices: “Do we simply throw away millennia of brilliant philosophical, legal and moral teaching, teaching given by countless people and cultures (the overwhelming majority by a landslide) by saying the entire position was motivated by ‘improper animus’?” As you know John, this position is being argued far too late in the game. Where were the thought leaders 20+ years ago? I think a lot of responsibility for the direction we are going as a nation rests on the shoulders of the Church.
@Michael. Appreciate your comments. It’s not difficult to see the trajectory of the moral demise happening before our eyes. Do you think that the key thought leaders in our country are prepared to take a stand as you describe? Are they willing to face the consequences, however difficult, to show their conscientious objection to these growing cultural challenges? Wondering what you think?
The govt can’t redefine what marriage is by passing legislation. They can’t tell me a duck is now a dog simply because they say it is. I will say this, however … if we were dumb enough to allow the State to license “marriages” in the first place, then it is extremely unfair to license a heterosexual couple but not a homosexual couple.
The Church must rediscover her shoulders.
However, they can legally treat a duck as if it is a dog by passing legislation.
It seems our professions of faith are not seen as relevant to the wider culture. True discipleship will influence all areas of life, including the fields of law and justice.
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@Barry – I don’t have a problem with that. Homosexual couples, in my opinion, should receive the same benefits a heterosexual couple does. Doesn’t mean I consider them married. Is this what we’re concerned with? That homosexual couples receive tax benefits, etc.?
@ Bryan: “The majority of human civilizations, and almost all monotheistic faith traditions, have argued that same-sex unions are contrary to natural law as well as divinely revealed moral teaching.”
And while one must take pains to be both humble and circumspect in deciding to contravene millennia of cultural convention and legal reasoning, the very same logic cited above could be used to justify countless other social arrangements, most saliently being slavery or the deprivation of full legal equality to classes of persons such as women.
Divinely revealed moral teaching must always be interpreted by attempting to discern the underlying Truth of the text in question and applying that broader principle (insofar as we purport to understand it, always with the humility to acknowledge both our limitations of insight and congenital proclivity towards sin) to the particularities of the contemporary age. For instance, I very much doubt that the Lord of all creation cares terribly much whether I am wearing a shirt made of two different fibers (Shatnez) as I sit in the office this morning.
As other commenters have noted, it is an unfortunate accident of history that we have chosen to enshrine a sacramental relationship in civil law. There is no pertinent equivalent thereto in American jurisprudence. One is recognized as an “adult” upon successful completion of Bar Mitzvah, but if one attempts to rob a liquor store later that evening, he will still be tried as a minor under the law. The religious ceremony in no way affects his status related to either civil or criminal behavior. Why, then, should marriage, understood as the voluntary and sacramental union of two persons before God and God’s people, confer differential tax benefits, hospital visitation rights, or notification of death in battle?
Of course the rejoinder comes that marriage is a unique social institution imbuing the civilization with inimitable civil advantage, in addition to a private partnership of consenting citizens. But if the state were sincerely so interested in protecting the basic human good of one man-one woman plus children arrangement, it would be undertaking a vast and comprehensive campaign against divorce, single-parent households, and other perversions of the archetype.
I work with teens and young adults, and in my daily interactions, I can identify myriad impediments and perils for the beautiful gifts of human sexuality, family, and marriage. Allowing an adult male to receive information from doctors as to the medical procedures his partner is undergoing in the OR following a car crash… the sort of information that cannot be disclosed unless one is a spouse or next of kin… is simply not one of them.
As a conservative evangelical Christian, the phrase “gay pride” has always bothered me for two main reasons. First, the word “gay” wasn’t in wide public use as a euphemism for homosexuals until the late 1960s. Noah Webster’s 1828 Dictionary defines “gay” as “merry; airy; jovial; sportive; frolicksome. It denotes more life and animation than cheerful.” Also, should people be proud of a sexual orientation that clearly perverts the way God designed marriage? Genesis 2:18 tells us: “Then the LORD God said, “It is not good that the man [Adam] should be alone; I will make a helper fit for him”” (ESV). He first states the natural order of marriage in 2:24: “Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and they shall become one flesh” (ESV). That is why God created both male AND female in His image, cf. Genesis 1:27. In the New Testament, the apostle Paul writes that men who practice homosexuality will not inherit the kingdom of God (1 Corinthians 6:9-10). Our challenge is to love homosexuals as human beings created in the image of God, but NOT condone their immoral lifestyle.
@Michael – great stuff, man – thanks!!
@Darren Paulson – If you don’t consider homosexual couples to be married, why do you think they should receive the same benefits as heterosexual couples? I’ve heard that the average homosexual has hundreds of partners over a lifetime, not to mention that they typically live shorter lives.
I finally stopped trying to comment on this because I think that at the core is an issue of ‘Render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s and render unto God what is God’s. Our Constitution and Declaration of Independence are meaningless if we do not believe in equal rights for all citizens of the United States. 1) Not all citizens of the United States profess to be Christians. I think that Judeo Christianity fell under 50% of Americans back in the ’90’s. 2) Not all relationships among citizens are heterosexual in nature. Even if the number of same sex relationships is a low number compared with heterosexual relationships — they still very much exist and they are after alll citizens of the United States of America. 3) There is supposed to be a Separation of Church and State –which we give lip service to until our particular religious view is threatened, and then the way we talk…..is like we would like a Theocracy. Dig deeper — regardless of the wording that is used, it is all about equal rights and equal respect for all citizens. Maybe all legal relationships between two persons should be ‘civil unions’ and leave the idea of marriage back in the church where it belongs. This was never an easy subject to begin with. What the Bible makes quite clear is that the way we react is mainly through the way we live our lives — our examples…….and in prayer…..praying fervently for revival.