Marriage vs. Religious Freedom

Black and white hands, claspedCatholic League president Bill Donohue hates the idea of same-sex marriage:

There is no world religion that embraces the bizarre idea that two men can get married, and there is no state in the nation where the people have directly chosen to approve it.  Yet because of some judges and state lawmakers, the prospect of same-sex marriage looms.

In fact, the Seattle Times reports about my own state, “The state Senate is just two votes shy of making Washington the seventh state to approve gay marriage.”  No, that wouldn’t be by a referendum of the voters, but so what?

Donohue is pleased, however, by “Marriage and Religious Freedom” a document recently signed by a number of conservative U.S. religious leaders that predictably rejects same-sex marriage.

The letter declares that ministers forced to conduct same-sex weddings is a manufactured fear, and it trusts in the First Amendment to rule out this possibility.  The real problem, it says, is same-sex married couples imposing on religion.  For example:

  • Religious adoption services couldn’t discriminate against same-sex married couples.
  • Marriage counselors couldn’t reject same-sex clients simply because they’re homosexual.
  • Religious employers couldn’t discriminate when giving health benefits to employees’ spouses.
  • Nor could they demote, reassign, or fire anyone for a same-sex marriage.

I’m not swept away with concern for the church.  Here’s why:

However free the exercise of religion may be, it must be subordinate to the criminal laws of the country.

That is part of the opinion of the Supreme Court in Davis v. Beason (1890), which effectively made polygamy illegal in the U.S.  In other words, when the state conflicts with religion on the definition of marriage, the state can prevail.

Another important Supreme Court case is Loving v. Virginia (1967), which overturned anti-miscegeny laws (that is, laws that prohibited mixed-race marriages) in 17 states.  Time declared this one of the “Top 10 Landmark Supreme Court Cases.”

Today’s fight over same-sex marriage closely parallels this fight over mixed-race marriage.  Let’s consider the facts in this case.  In 1959, Mildred and Richard Loving, a mixed-race couple, were convicted by a Virginia court for the crime of being married.  The judge used Christian justification for the decision:

Almighty God created the races white, black, yellow, malay and red, and he placed them on separate continents.  And but for the interference with his arrangement there would be no cause for such marriages.  The fact that he separated the races shows that he did not intend for the races to mix.

Do you see the parallels?  Here’s another comparison.  First, consider this proposed amendment to the U.S. Constitution from 1912:

Intermarriage between negroes or persons of color and Caucasians or any other character of persons within the United States or any territory under their jurisdiction, is forever prohibited.

Compare this to Proposition 8, a 2008 amendment to the California Constitution:

Only marriage between a man and a woman is valid or recognized in California.

If the first restriction is outrageous, why allow the second?

After listing some of the problems between religious organizations and same-sex couples, the “Marriage and Religious Freedom” manifesto says,

The refusal of these religious organizations to treat a same-sex sexual relationship as if it were a marriage marked them and their members as bigots, subjecting them to the full arsenal of government punishments and pressures reserved for racists.

Bingo!  Now you’re seeing the parallels.

Imagine if the manifesto whined about restrictions on religious organizations because of the legalization of not same-sex marriage but mixed-race marriage.  Adoption agencies couldn’t reject mixed-race couples who wanted to adopt.  Marriage counselors would have to accept mixed-race couples as clients.  Religious employers would be forced to give health benefits to (if you can believe it!) a “spouse” of another race.  And they would be barred from taking any kind of punitive action against an employee who married outside their race.

It’s amazing that the signatories to this document are high-level leaders within the Christian church.  Aren’t they supposed to be the enlightened, compassionate ones?  Aren’t they supposed to be the ones encouraging society onto the correct moral path?  Why is it the other way around?

I’m optimistic that the parallels between prohibitions on mixed-race marriage and same-sex marriage are too close for them to not eventually be treated the same.  But take note of the status quo.  Remember these religious arguments against same-sex marriage, because in 20 or 30 years, when same-sex marriage is as uncontroversial as mixed-race marriage, conservative Christians will be shocked that their leaders ever rejected it.

We’ll need to remind them of the harm that religious thinking can cause.

Photo credit: WolfSoul

Related posts:

Related links:

  • Christopher Shay, “Loving Day,” Time, 6/11/10.
  • “Time for Washington Legislature to legalize same-sex marriage” Seattle Times editorial, 11/14/11.

9 thoughts on “Marriage vs. Religious Freedom

  1. Gay marriage is religious freedom. Because some churches agree, and so are willing to marry gay couples.. If Americans allow a politically powerful religious group to dIctate what marriage is to everyone, this is not religious freedom..

  2. In regard to the judge’s comments in the Loving case: Could you not also make the case that God created separate religions and intended them to remain separate? Shouldn’t these “Christian” leaders be demanding that interfaith marriages be banned?


    • I like it! Luckily, few religious people would make this “separate continents” argument today.

      What’s bizarre is the strong parallels between no gay marriage and no mixed-race marriage … that the church doesn’t see. The church has a Galileo moment here–they can see the writing on the wall and get out ahead of what (to me, at least) is inevitable, or they can dig in their heels, get run over by public sentiment (just like with religious objections to mixed-race marriage), and then have their obsolete statements thrown back at them by detractors years later.

  3. It really is a matter of religious freedom, too, just not in the way the religious leaders want to see it. As an atheist, I do not believe that there are any coherent objections to same sex marriage. Therefore, banning it impedes on my rights to live my life as I wish according to my religious beliefs (or lack thereof). In bowing to Christian pressure over the issue, the state is effectively establishing the supremacy of one religious belief over the other. I would also argue that the same goes for plural marriage. The ban on it privileges the mainstream Christian concept of marriage over the Mormon or Muslim concept.

  4. I look at marriage as a human institution, and therefore a human right. Religion doesn’t own the word marriage, or have a monopoly on it. As far as I understand it those religions that don’t want to marry same-sex couples don’t have to because they are private organizations. I don’t see how the state, giving homosexuals the same rights and responsibilities as heteros, impedes on their religious freedom?

    • As listed above, some of these religious leaders do imagine their rights (to discriminate!) being infringed upon. The nail in the coffin for me is that you simply have to replace “gay couple” with “mixed-race couple” to take us back to arguments that organizations made back in 1967. If one kind of discrimination is unthinkable today, why not the other?

  5. Pingback: Homosexuality v. Christianity | Galileo Unchained

  6. Pingback: Gay Marriage Inevitable? | Galileo Unchained

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