Gay Marriage Bans Are a Violation of Religious Liberty


With the Supreme Court this week hearing arguments about the constitutionality of bans on same-sex marriage, supporters of these bans have often framed their arguments in terms of religious liberty. They have argued that allowing same sex couples to marry, because such unions are against Christian teachings, is a violation of the right of churches to practice their religion how they see fit. (I am sure many of these arguments apply to other faith traditions, but as a Christian I will address my own tradition.) 

Against this argument supporters of gay marriage have pointed out that legal same-sex marriage will in no way force churches to recognize such unions. I would like to go a step further.  As a theologically liberal yet committed and faithful Christian, I see bans on gay marriage as a violation of my religious rights. They violate the right of clergy of my religion to practice their legal right to imbue couples married in their church with the full legal benefits of marriage.

The whole idea that there is something called "Christian teaching" that does not sanction gay marriage is patently ridiculous. Christianity, contrary to the claims of militant atheists such as Ricky Gervais or Sam Harris, is not a hierarchically imposed system of thought designed to enslave a malleable herd. Rather, it is a dynamic tradition of thought that continually re-examines its beliefs in the face of new evidence. This does not imply that the eternal truths of the faith are invalid, merely that they are imperfectly realized and so must be interpreted anew when it becomes clear that the institutional church has fallen short of the glory of God. 

The church has fallen short.

"There is no longer Jew or Gentile, slave or free, male and female. For you are all one in Christ Jesus."

This quotation is not some liberal obscurantist revisionist Bible-bashing world-appeasing concession to post-Enlightenment universalism. It was not written by a liberal.  It was written by St. Paul. While in other places he failed to uphold the values of these words, they are there in scripture, written to the church in Galatia. The idea that distinctions of race, class, and gender simply do not matter is a scriptural idea. Without artificial gender binaries that run contrary to the truths of Christ, bans on same sex marriage make no sense whatsoever. It is as absurd as banning marriage among fellow redheads.

Other Christians will disagree. They will cite other passages that seem to reify gender binaries, they will dig up and decontextualize Deuteronomy and ignore the bans on tattoos and shellfish and angora-blend sweaters that can also be found there. But the fact is that my argument can be made with scriptural support. It is made by an ever-increasing number of liberal denominations who are not allowed to put their beliefs into action by conferring the legal benefits of marriage on same sex couples. They are forced to treat same sex and opposite sex couples differently in violation of their religious principles.

As long as DOMA and Prop 8 and all the other bans on gay marriage are in place, liberal denominations such as the United Church of Christ, the Evangelical Lutheran Church, certain bishoprics of the Episcopalian Church, the Quakers, and the reconciling wings of the Methodist and Presbyterian Churches are unable to sanctify unions sanctioned by their religion in the same way they are allowed to sanctify opposite-sex marriages. If any position on the same-sex marriage debate presents a genuine threat to religious liberty, it is the view that marriage must be defined as between a man and a woman.