My Facebook and twitter feeds are exploding over the SCOTUS decision that struck down the Defense of Marriage Act. One of the big fears is that religious institutions will now be forced to perform same-sex marriages or risk being in violation of anti-discrimination laws (and in some cases, hate crimes). As a pastor I believe that such a fear is unfounded. I also believe that this is an opportunity for faith communities to take back marriage from the culture and weddings from Modern Bride.
First things first: I don’t think that churches will face legal ramifications for NOT performing same-gender weddings, if that is their custom, for these reasons…
- To begin with, churches don’t perform weddings, pastors do. Pastors are not legally required to marry anyone who asks. Heterosexual persons have had the right to marry since the inception of our nation. As a pastor, I do NOT have to perform a heterosexual marriage just because I’m asked. I have the right to decline based upon my personal convictions and the practice of my faith community. There is no reason to believe that this would change just because DOMA has been struck down.
- Secondly, the SCOTUS decision removes the federal definition of marriage as between one man and woman only for the purpose of federal benefits. The net effect is that people married in states where it is legal must be considered married by the Federal government. This ruling does not deal with the question of who performs the marriages. Civil authorities in states that allow gay marriage do not have the right of refusal since they are officers of the government and operate under said laws. However, forcing pastors to perform gay marriages against their religious beliefs would be a violation of the anti-establishment clause, in my i’m-not-a-lawer opinion.
- More practically, who wants their marriage officiated by someone who is forced to do it by law? It kind of spoils the mood, don’t you think? A reasonable response to the question of same-sex marriage within the church is simply to acknowledge that some faith communities will be compelled to participate in same-gender weddings and others will not. Gay couples will naturally gravitate towards the ones that are. That alone doesn’t guarantee my belief that this won’t be a problem, but I doubt it will be a huge problem. Fred Phelps is not doing a gay wedding and I seriously doubt anyone would ask him for any reason other than to make a federal case out of it…literally.
So what is the opportunity? I believe this is an opportunity to…
- …brush up on our theology of marriage! What is marriage anyway? Who can and should get married and why? When is marriage a bad idea? What makes marriage work? Why get married at all (this is a common question these days for gays and straights alike)? It is clear that our culture doesn’t have a clue. But when over half of all Christian marriages end in divorce it’s pretty clear that Christians have lost the plot too.
- …ensure that our theology of weddings is firmly rooted in worship. Never thought about a theology of weddings? Well we need to. What we believe about the covenant between God and husband and wife needs to shape how we approach weddings. Most couples today are more influenced by Modern Bride magazine and TV shows like “Say Yes to the Dress” than a deeply rooted practice of weddings rooted in the Christian tradition. Churches, by and large, have abdicated their role in influencing weddings. The notable acceptation to this is the Roman Catholic Church which still regards the marriage and weddings as sacramental worship. We need to take back the wedding as a worship event that embodies the values of the church and the covenant marriage that the couple is entering into. A simple wedding centered in the faith community that elicits commitments to mutual submission for a lifetime and so on is a good place to start.
- …ensure that our practices match our theology! Where the church could possibly get into trouble with the law is through the uneven application of their theology in practice. For example, say that church A believes that marriage is between two Christian people. Then suppose that the daughter of an elder wants to get married at the church and she is marrying an atheist. If the church violates its own convictions in this case, they open themselves up to charges of discrimination. For example, if that same elder’s son wants to marry his boyfriend Tom and the church refuses, there could be a problem. Why violate your convictions in one case and not the other? Ah…discrimination. Churches need practices that reinforce their theological convictions and they need to act consistently with regards to their theology of weddings and marriage. In this case, pastors and congregations need to be in step with one another as to the policy and practice of the congregation and the beliefs and practices of the pastor.
- …clearly define our relationship between the faith community and the state. Weddings are one of the times that the line between church and state get blurred. Because our laws were created during a Christendom era, people saw no problem with a pastor acting as an agent of the state as they officiate weddings. Therefore, when I perform a wedding I am also able to act as an agent of the state by solemnizing that wedding as a legal contract between two parties. This is also a spot where things could go sideways for pastors who do not wish to participate in same-gender weddings. Remember that civil employees that perform weddings do not have the right to refuse a same-gender couple (if same-gender marriage is legal in that state). But what is the pastor? Because pastors can act in a civil role, it is possible that someone could make a case that as government agents they cannot usurp the law and don’t have a right to refusal based upon religious convictions. That is why I am suggesting that, going forward, pastors do not solemnize the civic aspect of weddings. Pastor can and should preside over religious covenant ceremonies. However, they should refer couples to the Justice of the Peace for the purpose of legal, civic marriage. Yes, it may be inconvenient for the couple and may be an added expense (but have you seen how much people spend on weddings these days?), but it allows couples greater flexibility and rightly separates the civil and covenantal aspects of marriage. It is a way of giving unto Caesar what is Caesars and giving unto God that which is Gods.
- …establish facility rental policies that clearly define who can rent the facility and for what purpose. That’s more of an administrative and policy question, but it is an important one to consider if you are concerned about legality. This comes into play if you are in the habit of renting your church out for weddings that your pastor(s) don’t officiate. If that is your policy, it is possible to be open to accusations of discrimination if you rent to party A and not party B.
These are a few of the opportunities that I see afforded to the church in this cultural moment. It is an opportunity to strengthen marriage, not because gay marriage is somehow going to weaken marriage, but because cultural practices rooted in both Christendom and consumerism have lulled the church to sleep with regard to the purpose and place of marriage in the church, community and, more importantly, the kingdom of God.