SCOTUS, Marriage, and the Church
I wasn't sure what I was going to write about today. I knew that a ruling by the Supreme Court on marriage equality was due at any time. It could have come today or perhaps next week. So, as I sat down this morning with my coffee, looked at the latest news on the internet, I discovered that the Supreme Court had done what most of us expected. While, I was hoping for a larger majority, by a 5-4 vote the Court ruled that civil marriage must be extended to same-sex couples. It should not surprise anyone that Anthony Kennedy again wrote for the majority, as he has written most of the recent rulings affecting the LGBT community. Of course the legal battles have not ended, nor have all the implications of the ruling been uncovered, but this is a historic day.
So, let me offer my initial reaction. I've tried to remain rather quiet on the subject in recent months, in part because we're having our own conversations within the congregation. It's not that the congregation is unaware of my full support for marriage equality, it's just that I've been letting others share their perspective. But on this day, I need to share a few thoughts.
First of all, let's talk about marriage. I'm actually working on a bible study guide on this subject, because while we talk a lot about "biblical marriage" I don't think we're too sure what that might involve. In my view this ruling will engender an important conversation about who can be married or should be married or why marriage is important. Some have voiced fears that granting marriage equality will undermine marriage. My sense is that we heterosexual's have already done that. As for me, I believe that marriage is a sacred covenant relationship that should be entered into with great care and deep commitment. Many gay and lesbian couples have already demonstrated that they have this same commitment.
Second, there's the issue of the law. Whether you think the church should bless gay unions (more about that in a moment), there are important legal benefits accorded to married couples that are not extended to gay couples in those states that have continued to ban such marriages. Provision of civil unions has provided access to some benefits, but not all, especially those at the federal level, where the word "marriage" is used to define such things as tax benefits, etc. In addition, and this is really important, under current law if same-sex couples choose to adopt, in many places including Michigan, only one of the parents can legally adopt. If the adoptive parent dies, for example, or is incapacitated, the other parent (who may be the one providing primary care giving) can lose the child. It will be up to the courts to decide. If for no other reason the stability of the home for children is important, and seems to have been a key factor in Justice Kennedy's decision. While the dissenters argued that the Constitution does not address marriage, the majority decided that the 14th Amendment's guarantee of equal protection required that marriage laws be applied to all couples, whether gay or straight.
Third, let me saw something about the church. Here I need to make clear that since the congregation is trying to discern how we will respond to the change in the law, I'm speaking for myself and not the church. Having said that, let's be clear -- the first amendment protects the right of the church and clergy to decide who they will marry or not marry. The Roman Catholic Church is not required to marry divorced couples. There are congregations who refuse to marry members who are living together before marriage. No church will be forced to provide weddings/marriage to gay couples. Now, other institutions, such as church-related colleges could be in a different situation, especially if they receive government grants for students -- that will likely be litigated over time. But as for the church, it doesn't have to extend marriage to anyone it doesn't want to. That being said, churches do face the question of the implications of the cultural sea-change for us. If, as it appears to most of us, marriage has evolved beyond simply being the societally recognized institution for procreation, but is understood to be a union of two persons who seek to live together in a divinely blessed union, that may or may not include children, then we need to ask the question about whether same-sex couples are included in this definition of marriage (remember that same-sex couples do have children, including through adoption). This is a conversation that we will continue to have. It will require us to go back to scripture and ask how it applies to this new situation, even as we have done so on many other situations. The conversation is ongoing, but from everything I can see from recent surveys it won't be too long before the vast majority of American Christians have come to believe that same-sex marriage is a divinely blessed institution.
My last word is this. I celebrate this day on behalf of my congregants who are gay and lesbian, as well as family members who are gay. There day has come. The Court has seen fit to accord to them the rights and responsibilities that come with legal marriage.