Editorial: Same-sex marriage—church divided, but liberty protected

FILE - This Oct. 8, 2010 file photo shows the justices of the U.S. Supreme Court at the Supreme Court in Washington. Seated from left are Associate Justices Clarence Thomas, and Antonin Scalia, Chief Justice John Roberts, Associate Justices Anthony M. Kennedy and Ruth Bader Ginsburg. Standing, from left are Associate Justices Sonia Sotomayor, Stephen Breyer, Samuel Alito Jr., and Elena Kagan. The Supreme Court on Thursday, June 28, 2012, upheld the individual insurance requirement at the heart of President Barack Obama's historic health care overhaul. (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais, File)

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Same-sex marriage is the law of the land. Outcries to the contrary, the Supreme Court’s Obergefell v. Hodges decision did not herald the demise of religious liberty in America.

The ruling settled the question of whether gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered people have the right to marry. But society at-large remains far from settled. In fact, Obergefell may be the most divisive decision the court has delivered since Roe v. Wade split the nation over abortion in 1973.

knox newEditor Marv KnoxDespite oversimplification, this case does not pit Christians against everyone else. This is hard for strong opponents and advocates of same-sex marriage to fathom. The church is divided, because Christians on both sides of the issue have staked out their positions precisely because of their faith. 

One side cites the Bible’s ideal of faithful, monogamous marriage occurring between one woman and one man for life. It also points to Old Testament and New Testament condemnation of homosexual activity. The other side insists the Bible condemns sexual hostility and inhospitality but does not consider faithful, loving same-sex relationships. It points to the biblical notion all people are created in God’s image, and a loving God commands love and respect for all creation.

Although opponents find homosexual marriage heinous and supporters believe opponents are unloving, belief about sexuality is not a requirement for salvation. So, while same-sex marriage is a test of fellowship, it is not an article of faith. It is and will remain an issue for the church to work out. How we work it out will speak volumes to a world watching to see if Christians can disagree vehemently and yet act lovingly and respectfully.

Meanwhile, Obergefell v. Hodges has heightened attention to U.S. religious liberty to unprecedented levels.

Inevitably, the court’s ruling will ramp up the fears of many conservative Christians. You’ve probably already heard some of these laments: “The homosexual community is assaulting our religious liberty” or “They’re going to force our ministers to perform gay weddings” or “Before you know it, they’ll make us open our church to same-sex weddings.”

These fears are completely unfounded, for at least three reasons:

The First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution

The Constitution protects religious freedom, and any attempt to “force” ministers to perform certain functions or churches to host specific events is illegal. The First Amendment states, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” 

“This constitutional protection for religious liberty has been interpreted to mean churches have broad autonomy when it comes to conducting their own internal affairs, particularly in matters of belief and doctrine,” explains Hollyn Hollman, general counsel for the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty. “It certainly protects the rights of churches and ministers to decide what kinds of ceremonies they will conduct.” 

Generally speaking, freedom of worship—including a wedding as a worship service—is “a central concern for our freedom of religion,” she adds.

So, no one can interfere with your church’s free exercise of religion by telling it how to conduct its business. That’s unconstitutional.

The Religious Freedom Restoration Act

In 1993, Congress passed the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, a carefully crafted law that maintains government cannot substantially burden religious practice without demonstrating a compelling reason to do so. Although the Supreme Court ruled RFRA does not apply to the states, Texas passed its own law—as carefully balanced as the federal legislation—in 1999.

Despite so much controversy over state RFRAs this spring, Texas’ law has been noncontroversial for 16 years. It withstands the pressure both of people who might try to force others to violate their religious convictions and those who might try to claim improper religious exemption.

The Texas RFRA has drawn praise  from Republicans and Democrats, conservatives and liberals.

The federal and state RFRAs provide a durable backstop to the First Amendment, doubly securing religious liberty.

The Texas Pastor-Protection Act

This spring, in direct response to the Supreme Court’s anticipated approval of same-sex marriage, the Texas Legislature passed and Gov. Greg Abbott signed the Pastor-Protection Act.

This new law, which takes effect Sept. 1, specifically grants clergy the right to refuse to conduct marriages that would violate their beliefs. “Pastors now have the freedom to exercise their First Amendment rights,” Abbott said as he signed the law. 

The only Texans who came close to opposing the bill did so because they saw it as redundant and unnecessary. As the governor hinted, the freedom affirmed by the Pastor-Protection Act already is guaranteed in the First Amendment.

Thanks to the First Amendment, the Religious Freedom Restoration Act and the Pastor-Protection Act, Texans’ religious liberty trousers are shored up by a belt, suspenders and a rope.

Due to the coincidence of this important Supreme Court decision coming down so close to the July 4 holiday, we’re publishing two editorials this week. You can find the other editorial here.


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