When U.S. District Judge John E. Jones, III, recently issued his decision overturning Pennsylvania’s ban on same-sex marriage, reactions from religious communities were quite varied. The morning after the ruling was made public, and even before Governor Corbett announced that he would not appeal, Pastor Anne Mason of the Unitarian-Universalist congregation in Lancaster appeared on the front page of the morning paper offering free weddings to any couple who contacted the church office that day. Interfaith minister Rev. Kelly Jo Singleton soon followed with a similar offer. They greeted the news with unequivocal celebration.
Following publication of these expressions of support, the U-U church office received several phone messages decrying their action and stating, among other things, that they were all going to hell. Though no specific threats were included in any of the messages, the congregation requested the presence of Silent Witness Peacekeeper Alliance members on the day of the weddings just in case any protesters showed up and tried to disrupt the events.
As I have written before, Silent Witnesses, when asked, stand as a barrier between anti-gay protesters and “street preachers,” and GLBTQ folks attending festivals, memorial services, and other public events. Our intent is to defuse any potential confrontations, respecting the first amendment rights of the protesters while presenting a welcoming and protective presence for the GLBTQ community. Fortunately there was no harassment or attempted disruption of the seven weddings held on that first Saturday.
Randall Wenger, an attorney representing the Pennsylvania Family Institute (PFI), an organization dedicated to supporting “traditional families,” noted that “the ruling on gay marriage alters the marriage paradigm,” changing it “from a child-centered institution [to] an adult-centered institution.” He also claimed that “[t]oday’s decision threatens the rights of those who believe marriage is between a man and a woman.”
The PFI, through its associated organization, the Pennsylvania Family Council, is loosely affiliated with the Family Research Council, which states on its website, “Family Policy Councils (FPCs) accomplish at the state level what Family Research Council does at the national level - shape public debate and formulate public policy.” On both the state and national levels, this network of organizations has actively opposed extending civil rights to same-sex couples. Though they are incorporated as a non-profit rather than a religious organization, their materials draw heavily on a literalist reading of the Bible in making their arguments. Because of its use of defamatory and demonstrably false statements, the Southern Poverty Law Center lists the national organization, but not the state-level council, as an anti-gay hate group.
Writing in the Lancaster Sunday News from the Roman Catholic perspective, the Rev. Peter Hahn tried to articulate a middle way, arguing, “Marriage is first and foremost a Sacrament of the Church and it is the authority of God, not of the state, that governs its administration. Can states provide for ‘civil unions’ or other legal means that help provide for legal benefits to those in ‘same-sex’ relationships? Indeed, they can.” In this view the term “marriage” is to be restricted to religious usage, while a separate structure is to be established to provide legal protection to those couples whom the church deems ineligible for marriage. Such “separate but equal” arrangements present their own challenges, not least of which was the rejection of a similar argument during the struggle to end racial segregation in public schools.
One thing that needs to be pointed out here is that, from a religious standpoint, a number of denominations, including the Roman Catholic Church, exercise clear restrictions on who they will marry. No clergyperson can be legally compelled to perform a marriage ceremony with which that person disagrees. That has always been the case, and it will not change with the current ruling regarding same-sex marriage.
Quite a few faith groups will not marry a person who has been married and divorced unless the previous spouse is deceased. I have heard several divorced-and-remarried former Catholics mention that, in the eyes of their former church, they are “living in sin” and not truly married. I suspect that some other denominations may take the same position, and they have a perfect legal right to do so. But never have I heard of attempts by religious groups that do not recognize such marriages to encode their restrictive views into civil law and to deny the right of marriage to those who do not share their position.
In this regard the situation of same-sex couples desiring to wed is more like that of interracial couples prior to 1967, when the Supreme Court, in deciding Loving v. Virginia, struck down the Commonwealth of Virginia’s anti-miscegenation law and similar laws in fifteen other states. Such laws not only forbade interracial marriage but imposed severe criminal penalties on couples who broke them. The judge who originally sentenced the Lovings for their crime of returning to live in Virginia after being legally married in Washington, D.C., made obvious the religious nature of the ban, stating in his opinion, “Almighty God created the races white, black, yellow, malay (sic) and red, and he placed them on separate continents.... The fact that he separated the races shows that he did not intend for the races to mix.”
In the same way that in the 19th century many Christian ministers argued that the Bible supported slavery, and in the 20th century that segregation of the races in public and private life was God’s will, the early years of the 21st century have seen opposition from Christian and other faith groups to the extension of full civil rights to those who differ from the majority in sexual orientation and gender expression. The number holding this view is dwindling but still forms a considerable vocal presence in our country.
Perhaps most disturbing is the idea expressed in a letter to the editor published in the June 5 edition of the Intelligencer Journal/Lancaster New Era. That letter began, “It’s a sad day for our country when Judge John E. Jones III’s justification to legalize same-sex marriage was based on our Constitution rather than on God’s word.” The clear implication is that the author of the letter would prefer a judiciary that decides cases on religious rather than constitutional grounds. One must ask, which God, and whose interpretation of that God’s word? Taken to its logical conclusion, such a course could well lead to the kind of dystopia described by Margaret Atwood in “The Handmaid’s Tale,” or even more gruesomely, to the real-life conditions in countries like Saudi Arabia and Uganda.
On Monday June 9, Judge Jones appeared on WITF-FM’s interview and discussion program “Smart Talk.” When interviewer Scott LaMar asked why Jones, as a Federal Judge, would take the rather unusual step of participating in a broadcast interview, the judge replied that he viewed it as an opportunity to educate the public about the judiciary. Later in the interview, in response to a question emailed in by a listener, Judge Jones warned against conflating religion and the law, declaring, “If you have certain religious beliefs that cause you to embrace a position that ultimately is found to run afoul of the Constitution of the United States, the Constitution wins.” The complete interview can be heard here.
We live in a contentious and unsettled time. Religious communities, unless they choose a life separate from society like the Amish or cloistered nuns and monks, cannot help but be caught up in difficult transitions. Some will embrace a new revelation while others hold tightly to what they have always known. It is the task of our civil authorities to seek the common good, with justice and equality for all. The constitution requires both that individuals be free to believe and worship as they wish and that no belief or practice be forced on those who do not share it.
In the case of same-sex marriage, our courts are moving toward the understanding that the religious beliefs of some cannot serve as an impediment to extending civil rights to everyone. It’s an understanding that not all are yet willing to embrace. No matter where each of us is on this journey, may we walk humbly, keeping in mind that none of us has perfect understanding, and that those with whom we fervently disagree are also beloved children of God.