Ecclesial Implications of Marriage Equality
If, as I believe, the pendulum has swung in the direction of legalizing the marriages of gays and lesbians, the church will be forced to wrestle with its implications. I've invited John, one of our frequent commentators and an attorney, to write a legal analysis of the Prop 8 decision. From what I've been reading, its unlikely that the appellate courts will overturn the District Court ruling on legal grounds. It is, therefore, likely that the case will go to the Supreme Court. Should they hear it -- and generally that means that four justices agree to hear it -- then it will be interesting to see where this goes. If things go as they generally do, the deciding vote will be Anthony Kennedy. If this ruling stands, and it just might do so, then it has implications for the entire country. If upheld, it could very well overturn gay marriage bans across the country. Now there could be an effort to enshrine traditional marriage into the Constitution, but I don't think that this will fare well. Amendments to the Constitution take a lot of time and effort, and the cultural trends are working against such an eventuality.
Therefore, I believe that the ball has been effectively placed in the court of the church (and other religious communities). Although the legal ramifications could mean that the "state" could no longer refuse to grant marriage licenses to same sex couples, and it could lead to the overturning of the "Defense of Marriage Act," which denies recognition to same sex couples on a statutory basis, this doesn't mean that churches have to recognize such marriages. Clergy do act as agents of the state when they perform weddings, but they're not the only possible agents.
So the question looms -- how will the church respond? At least initially, I expect most ecclesial bodies will continue business as usual. With few exceptions, most Christian denominations do not recognize gay unions of any kind, including marriage. My own denomination, the Disciples of Christ, has taken no official position, so that really leaves it up to local congregations. As for my congregation, we are only now beginning conversations about these issues (not just gay marriage, but homosexuality and the church in general). We've not taken a position, and it is my stated view that I will not participate in such a marriage ceremony until the congregation has come to a consensus on the issue. At this point, I simply don't know where the congregation will come out on this issue. I know that there is openness, but traditions and cultural mores die very slowly, if at all. Tradition may not be a useful argument in the court of law, but it is in the church.
So, I'd like to open up the discussion as to what the implications for the church might be. Let me put a caveat here -- I'd rather that we not reargue the question of whether or not Scripture casts homosexuality in a negative light -- we've had this discussion. I'd rather not have this be about the legal aspects either -- hopefully John can shed light on that question. What I'd like for us to do is have a "civil" conversation that wrestles with the implications for the church if Prop 8 is declared unconstitutional, which might make it legal across the vastness of this nation for people to marry same sex partners and receive all the rights and benefits currently accorded to heterosexual couples.