Eight scholars and writers discuss whether religious institutions should get out of the marriage business.April 2014
No-fault divorce changed the American culture of marriage. So did the sexual revolution. Now proponents of gay rights are redefining marriage at an even more fundamental level. What’s to be done? As a post-biblical vision of sex, gender, and marriage gains the upper hand in our society, should our religious institutions get out of marriage? Should priests, pastors, and rabbis renounce their roles as deputies of state authority in marriage? Or should we sustain the close links between religious and civil marriage?
To help us think more clearly about these issues, we asked eight writers to respond to the following question: With the legal affirmation of same-sex marriage in some states, should churches, synagogues, and mosques stop performing civil marriages?
Ryan T. Anderson
The redefinition of marriage will have profound consequences for society. For this reason, focusing at this point on getting the Church out of the civil marriage business or—a true fantasy—getting the government out of the marriage business ultimately distracts us from what most needs doing: defending the truth about marriage.
Provided that rabbis, imams, and Christian ministers are not coerced into performing services that violate their beliefs about marriage, they should continue our tradition of the joint sacred-civil service. Of course, if a state were to require any minister who believes the truth about marriage—that it is a union of male and female—to perform same-sex marriages, that would give him good reason to stop acting as the state’s agent. And once he did, the First Amendment would protect him, as a religious minister, against further coercion.
The coercion that should really concern us is broader—and unavoidable wherever same-sex marriage is recognized. As experience has already shown, the redefinition of marriage and related state policies on sexual orientation have led to intolerance, intimidation, and even government coercion and discrimination against citizens who believe that marriage unites a man and a woman and that sexual relations are properly reserved for marriage.
Recently, the New Mexico Supreme Court ruled that the First Amendment does not protect a photographer’s right to decline to take pictures of a same-sex commitment ceremony—even though doing so would violate the Christian photographer’s deeply held religious beliefs.
Christian adoption and foster-care agencies have been forced to stop providing services because they object to placing children in same-sex households. Similar cases include a baker, a florist, a bed-and-breakfast, a T-shirt company, a student counselor, the Salvation Army, and more.
Religious liberty infringements aren’t the only cause for concern. The redefinition of marriage will undermine the public understanding of what marriage is and what it requires of spouses. That will make spouses less likely to live out the truth about marriage, and all of society will suffer as a consequence. After all, the law teaches, and what it teaches about marriage matters.
Debating whether religious communities should perform civil marriages undermines the more urgent task of teaching the truth about marriage. But the reverse isn’t true. Given mounting political pressure, we may think it prudent to discuss how to distance ourselves from civil marriage. But, in fact, defending the truth about marriage—including civil marriage—and persuading the public that our views of marriage are reasonable will go a long way toward securing at least the political freedom to live by them.
That freedom matters, because Americans and the associations we form—nonprofit and for-profit—should be free to speak and act in the public square based on our beliefs about marriage as the union of a man and woman, without fear of government penalty.
That freedom is threatened because our neighbors fail to understand even why we believe as we do. And the fault frequently lies with us, for being too often unwilling to make our case.
Our efforts must be extended and multiplied. We need dozens of different ways of defending marriage philosophically, legally, and as a policy matter. We need theologians as well as artists, musicians, and other culture makers to engage in the same task.
That won’t happen if we let discussions about Church and marriage or state and marriage displace the more basic task of actually discussing what marriage is. The best defense of our interests is a defense of the truth by which we seek to live.
—Ryan T. Anderson is the William E. Simon
Fellow in Religion and a Free Society at the
Heritage Foundation, and editor of
The recent Supreme Court decisions and laws that various states have adopted sanctioning same-sex marriages gravely challenge the Orthodox Church and other churches for which marriage in its very nature is comprised of male and female members. Every sacrament includes non-substitutable elements of transformation: wine and bread in the Eucharist, water and oil in baptism, and male and female in marriage. Same-sex marriage is a nonsensical locution; our use of it, such as in the question posed, reveals the extent to which already the proponents of this misnomer have the advantage.