Some Texas Baptist pastors want fellow ministers to consider whether they should stop signing marriage licenses as agents of the state and start asking couples to sign covenant marriage certificates.
To protect the free exercise of religion in the state—particularly in light of changing definitions of marriage at the national level—they also want to encourage churches to adopt clear statements defining their positions on sexual ethics and marriage. In addition, they hope to amend the Texas Constitution to include language modeled after the national Religious Freedom Restoration Act.
First Baptist Church in Athens; Brent Gentzel, pastor of First Baptist Church in Kaufman; and Kris Segrest, pastor of First Baptist Church in Wylie—have organized a meeting to discuss the issues with other pastors Nov. 16, the eve of the Baptist General Convention of Texas annual meeting in Waco, at 8 p.m. in Bennett Auditorium on the Baylor University campus.Three ministers—Kyle Henderson, pastor of
At the meeting, the pastors will provide sample statements of faith, church policies, covenant marriage certificates and the proposed constitutional amendment.
Henderson quit signing marriage licenses about a year and a half ago.
“I had grown increasingly uncomfortable acting as an agent of the state,” he said.
Instead, he wanted couples to sign their vows to certify the covenant they made with each other before God, and then go on their own to register their marriage with the state.
On Oct. 22, First Baptist in Athens approved changes to its statement of faith, adding an article on “covenant marriage,” pointing to Ephesians 5:21-33 as its normative expression.
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At the same time, the church amended its personnel handbook to say staff members employed by the church and its related ministries are exclusively allowed to officiate covenant marriage ceremonies and exclusively authorized to sign covenant marriage certificates.
Churches need articles of belief about marriage
While all Christian organizations should make sure they have approved statements of their beliefs about marriage and family, Texas Baptist churches particularly need to consider revising their articles of belief, Henderson asserted.
Many BGCT-related congregations—especially churches that distanced themselves from the Southern Baptist Convention in recent years—have governing documents that identify the 1963 Baptist Faith & Message as their statement of faith.
Unlike the version of the Baptist Faith & Message the SBC adopted in 2000—which includes a statement added in 1998 defining marriage as “the uniting of one man and one woman in covenant commitment for a lifetime”—the 1963 faith statement does not directly address marriage and family.
“That could place churches and religious institutions in a precarious place” if they tried to limit the use of their facilities or were challenged regarding hiring practices, Henderson said.
“Churches and religious institutions need to articulate their sincerely held beliefs on this matter. We want to give them model documents to consider.”
First Baptist in Kaufman has not adopted a statement on marriage or taken action regarding signing marriage licenses, but Gentzel agrees in principle with Henderson’s position.
“As Baptists, we have a unique voice when it comes to religious liberty issues and separation of church and state,” he said. However, “we have ignored our roots for too long” with respect to pastors acting as agents for the state by signing marriage licenses.
“I’ve never felt too comfortable standing up and saying, ‘By the power vested in me by the state,’” he confessed. “It never seemed healthy and didn’t feel right.”
First Baptist in Wylie is “at the front end of the process” in terms of adopting a statement on marriage and adopting a policy regarding ministers signing marriage licenses, Segrest said, but the church is deeply interested in the issues.
“We are very engaged in the freedom conversation that is going on,” he said. “I believe the biggest reason these issues have become issues really finds its genesis in cultural conflict when it comes to gender confusion and the redefinition of family.
“It’s not our intention to be adversarial. We want people of faith to be able to live out their convictions.”
Even apart from the issue of same-sex marriage, Gentzel and Henderson agreed, the church and the state don’t mean the same thing when they use the term “marriage.”
“Covenant marriage is the ideal of Scripture. Civil marriage is defined by the state,” Henderson said.
And the state’s definition is sorely lacking, Gentzel added.
“The state definition of marriage is really void of substance when it comes to spousal responsibility,” he said.
Ferrell Foster, director ethics and justice with the Texas Baptist Christian Life Commission, pointed to the approach the pastors suggested as “a viable alternative” for churches concerned about changing definitions for marriage, but he noted the CLC had not taken any position on ministers refusing to sign marriage licenses.
Definition of marriage ‘in flux’ in broader culture
“The definition of marriage is definitely in a state of flux in our broader culture. It seems likely that same-sex marriage will eventually become legal in all states, but that outcome is not yet certain,” Foster said.
“Many, if not most, Baptists see this as contrary to biblical teaching about marriage and is thus a serious problem. Our pastors and churches are surely free to refrain from signing civil marriage licenses and to move toward using different language regarding the relationships they bless. It seems to be a viable alternative for those pastors and churches that disagree with state acceptance of same-sex marriage.”
Proposed amendment to state constitution
The three pastors hope to see a constitutional amendment included on the ballot next year. The amendment would take language currently in Texas statutory law—based on the national Religious Freedom Restoration Act—and add it to Article 1, Section 6 of the Texas Constitution’s Bill of Rights.
RFRA—passed by Congress in 1993 at the urging of a broad-based coalition spearheaded by the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty—was aimed to prevent laws that substantially burden any individual’s free exercise of religion.
Lawyers cited RFRA in arguing Burwell v. Hobby Lobby, in which the Supreme Court ruled in favor of a closely held private company’s right to an exemption from some portions of the Affordable Care Act’s contraception mandate. That decision prompted some opponents to argue for RFRA’s repeal.
The proposed amendment would ensure no government entity could burden a person’s free exercise of religion unless it is “necessary to further a compelling state interest,” and provided that it is “the least restrictive means of furthering that interest.”
A higher threshold
Adding the RFRA-based protections to the state’s constitution would “create a higher threshold, so that any state legislative session could not overturn it,” Henderson said.
The CLC played a significant role in developing RFRA and securing passage of the law at both national and state levels, CLC Public Policy Director Kathryn Freeman noted.
“We are not aware of any unresolved situations under the current RFRA statute, but we agree that a constitutional amendment would make it difficult to change Texas’ longstanding commitment to religious liberty should the political winds change,” Freeman said. “The CLC will consider every proposal in detail as the process moves forward. We continue to seek to protect the free exercise of religion in Texas and the nation.”