Marriage Equality and the Argument of Religious Freedom

A Theology of Necessary Intolerance

In a historic event, the US Supreme court announced this month that it will decide two cases regarding the legality of same-sex marriage its 2013 session. These cases include the 1996 Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) that forbids federal recognition of same-sex marriages allowed by individual states, and California’s Proposition 8 that amended the state’s constitution in 2008 to ban same-sex marriage after that right had already been granted.

The heated debate surrounding the issue of marriage equality has focused mostly upon our American ideal of Civil Rights, and the Constitutional concepts of personal liberty and religious freedom. Both sides are ringing these bells to validate their arguments.

Advocates for marriage equality take the position that same-sex couples’ access to the legal rights enjoyed by opposite-sex couples regarding spousal, parental, tax, and estate statutes is a Civil Rights issue. The reasoning is that if same-sex couples function in the same marital and familial ways as opposite-sex couples, then not granting them equal rights under the law for no reason other than they are members of the same sex is blatant discrimination.

Also, if laws are enacted that forbid the recognition of partnerships and families based on religious parameters that narrowly define who is acceptable to love and to have sexual relationships with, then that is an issue of personal liberty guaranteed by the Constitution. In fact, the Ninth Circuit Federal Court of Appeals struck down Proposition 8  partially for this reason, citing that it “has no effect, other than to lessen the status and human dignity of gays and lesbians in California, and to officially reclassify their relationships and families as inferior to those of opposite-sex couples. The [United States] Constitution simply does not allow for laws of this sort.”

Many opposed to marriage equality, especially those who hold a biblical worldview, have argued that any law that broadens the civil definition of marriage represents a threat to their religious freedom. Some who support, and even some who are indifferent to, the issue of marriage equality, have questioned the rationale for this argument. How can a marriage between people of the same sex have any bearing on any other marriage or anyone else’s religious choices? Isn’t marriage a personal decision made by those who choose to commit to it?

But to understand how legislating marriage equality for all can be argued to be a violation of the religious freedom for some, it is necessary to understand the underlying theology. From a biblical perspective, marriage is not a right that can be given or taken by a secular authority, nor is anyone “free” to recreate the institution according to one’s individual preferences. Marriage is not the result of human evolution or a social contract between people in a society, but “ is theistic: it is of God not man” and exists “first and foremost to glorify God.”

Those who subscribe to this theology believe that any deviation from a strict biblical interpretation of marriage as the union of one man and one woman for the sole purpose of procreation is to deny “God’s” original human edict and will necessarily lead to a degradation of the moral order of society, and ultimately to the unraveling of culture.

In this absolutist worldview relativism cannot be tolerated. There is no room for diversity in human relations or complexity in human sexuality because anything other than unconditional acceptance of what is seen as “God’s” will is a rejection of the ordering principle of the universe. In this theology, “truth is not discovered; it is revealed. It is not from within; it is from without.” This means that ultimately one’s life does not belong to oneself and any attempt to live according to one’s own will, one’s personal religious beliefs, or one’s own desires represents the sin of idolatry.

From this perspective, same-sex marriage can never be defined as a Civil Right because homosexuality is a moral wrong.  However, there are varying levels of tolerance within the diverse Biblical community regarding the issue of marriage-equality. Leading voices within the debate range from calling for the faithful to stay true to their religious beliefs while attempting to practice tolerance for their LGBT sisters and brothers to those who believe that any acceptance of homosexuality in our country is nothing less than a Christian call to arms that must be answered.