Gay Marriage and the Eclipse of Religious Liberty

Waiting for the other shoe to drop.

The more I have read, the more I have become concerned that very little accommodation will be forthcoming. Proponents of gay marriage are not interested in protecting the religious liberty of traditional marriage supporters. As Ross Douthat has pointed out: Unless something dramatic changes in the drift of public opinion, the future of religious liberty on these issues is going to depend in part on the magnanimity of gay marriage supporters.

Ever since the court handed down its DOMA decision yesterday, it has become increasingly clear that we are one lawsuit away from gay marriage being ensconced as a Constitutional right. My hunch is that such a lawsuit will come sooner rather than later, and that the matter could end up before the Supreme Court in relatively short order. President Obama is already saying that gay marriages performed legally in one state should be recognized by every other state in the union. This matter will be litigated, and—as Scalia noted in his dissent—that other shoe is going to drop.

In any case, the Supreme Court has led us to the precipice of legal gay marriage in all fifty states. As gay marriage moves forward, there is a real question whether proponents of gay marriage will allow any legal accommodation for the consciences of those who hold marriage to be the union of one man and one woman. Observant Christians, Jews, and Muslims would all have religious reasons for defining marriage in the traditional way, but will their religious liberty be respected as gay marriage becomes the law of the land?

We have already seen that private business owners such as bakers and florists have been sued by their state governments for failing to provide their services for gay weddings. We’ve also seen Catholic Charities have to leave Massachusetts for refusing to provide adoptions for gay couples. In none of these has there been any legal accommodation for the deeply help religious beliefs of traditional marriage supporters. These cases are already cropping up across the country, and we can imagine countless other conflicts that may arise. What if a Christian university were to decide to limit its married student housing to heterosexual couples? Will there be any accommodation for this under the new regime?

The more I have read, the more I have become concerned that very little accommodation will be forthcoming. Proponents of gay marriage are not interested in protecting the religious liberty of traditional marriage supporters. As Ross Douthat has pointed out:

Unless something dramatic changes in the drift of public opinion, the future of religious liberty on these issues is going to depend in part on the magnanimity of gay marriage supporters.

Yet there is very little evidence of “magnanimity” on the part of gay marriage supporters. On the contrary, there is evidence that many of them would like to see traditional marriage supporters get their comeuppance. A scorched-earth policy may very well be in the offing with traditional marriage supporters getting the biggest burn. Will there be room for compromise? About a year ago, Robert George predicted that no compromise will be allowed by gay marriage supporters. He writes:

The fundamental error made by some supporters of conjugal marriage was and is, I believe, to imagine that a grand bargain could be struck with their opponents: “We will accept the legal redefinition of marriage; you will respect our right to act on our consciences without penalty, discrimination, or civil disabilities of any type. Same-sex partners will get marriage licenses, but no one will be forced for any reason to recognize those marriages or suffer discrimination or disabilities for declining to recognize them.” There was never any hope of such a bargain being accepted. Perhaps parts of such a bargain would be accepted by liberal forces temporarily for strategic or tactical reasons, as part of the political project of getting marriage redefined; but guarantees of religious liberty and non-discrimination for people who cannot in conscience accept same-sex marriage could then be eroded and eventually removed. After all, “full equality” requires that no quarter be given to the “bigots” who want to engage in “discrimination” (people with a “separate but equal” mindset) in the name of their retrograde religious beliefs…

There is, in my opinion, no chance—no chance—of persuading champions of sexual liberation (and it should be clear by now that this is the cause they serve), that they should respect, or permit the law to respect, the conscience rights of those with whom they disagree. Look at it from their point of view: Why should we permit “full equality” to be trumped by bigotry? Why should we respect religions and religious institutions that are “incubators of homophobia”? Bigotry, religiously based or not, must be smashed and eradicated. The law should certainly not give it recognition or lend it any standing or dignity.

Can we really expect the sexual revolutionaries to be magnanimous toward those they regard as bigoted? Probably not. It’s probably even less likely now that the Supreme Court’s majority opinion in the DOMA case renders a similar moral judgment upon traditional marriage supporters. Why would anyone want to be magnanimous toward those who seek to “demean,” to “impose inequality” and a “stigma” on gay people, to deny gay people “equal dignity,” to treat them as “unworthy,” and to “humiliate” their children? That’s how the Supreme Court describes traditional marriage supporters. As that opinion moves into the cultural mainstream, it’s difficult to imagine why the majority would make accommodations for the consciences of those they regard as bigots.

What does all of this mean? It means that Christians and other traditional marriage supporters need to direct great energy to obtaining every religious liberty accommodation possible while there is still time. It may be that the moment is passing us by, and that makes the matter all the more urgent.

It also means for Christians that we need to be ready for a new reality. We need to be ready to love our neighbors and our enemies and to bear witness in a culture that is increasingly hostile toward us. Private citizens may someday face fines and other penalties for their convictions on marriage. Our churches may eventually lose tax exempt status. Any number of negative outcomes are possible in the approaching conflagration. Ours will likely be a costly love and a costly witness. But this is precisely the kind of discipleship that Jesus has called all of us to, and it will be worth it in the end (Matt. 16:25).

Denny Burk is Associate Professor of New Testament and Dean of Boyce College, the undergraduate arm of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminar. He blogs on matters concerning politics, theology and culture. This article is used with his permission.