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American Religion and the Marriage Debate

William N. Eskridge Jr.

From the beginning of the marriage equality debate, the main critics of marriage between persons of the same sex were religious intellectuals and public figures such as Phyllis Schlafly, Josef Ratzinger, Jim Dobson, Phil Burris, Lou Sheldon, Lynn Wardle, Maggie Gallagher, Robby George, Richard Land, and Monte Stewart.   

Everywhere marriage equality was seriously considered, many religious traditionalists considered it an existential threat to faith communities in America and not just misguided or immoral policy. Our nation’s three largest denominations—the Catholic Church, Southern Baptist Convention, and the Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter-day Saints—were wedded to the doctrine that God sanctions only “one flesh” conjugal unions as marriages (Gen. 2:24) and that the union of a man and woman in matrimony is modeled on Christ’s devotion to the Church (Eph. 5:25). “Homosexual” or “gay” marriage was, literally, a sacrilege for these denominations and others.

Relatedly, religious critics considered marriage equality as promoting or sanctioning evil or sin. For them, nonprocreative intercourse, especially between two men, was “unnatural” (Rom. 2:26–27), an “abomination” in the eyes of the Lord (Lev. 20:13), and not the kind of self-giving they saw in conjugality. A favorite metaphor was Pandora’s box: gay marriage would open the door to all manner of perversions, and moral boundaries would erode. If the state recognized sinful unions as marriages, critics feared that not only would homosexuality be normalized, but faith traditions rejecting same-sex marriage would be demonized.          

Yet, even at the outset of the marriage equality narrative, other religious intellectuals and ministers, priests, and rabbis were supportive. Jack Baker and Mike McConnell, the first “gay marriage” celebrities, were encouraged in their mission by the Catholic chaplain at the University of Minnesota, and their marriage ceremony (recently recognized as legal) was conducted by an ordained Methodist minister. When Boulder County Clerk Clela Rorex issued official marriage licenses to four male and two female couples in the spring of 1975, all but one sealed their legal marriages with ceremonies having a religious officiant. The Reverend Troy Perry, originally ordained as a Pentecostal pastor, officiated thousands of same-sex marriages in the 1970s, under the auspices of the Metropolitan Community Church.

I was counsel for Craig Dean and Patrick Gill, who brought the first marriage equality case after the 1970s. In connection with Dean v. District of Columbia, we secured letters from respected pastors, rabbis, and priests—all supporting marriage equality from the perspective of their faith traditions. They included representatives from the Catholic, Presbyterian, Methodist, Congregationalist, and Unitarian Churches, as well as the Society of Friends and Reform Judaism. More than a dozen of those letters are reprinted as an Appendix to my 1996 book, The Case for Same-Sex Marriage.

In 1991, these religious leaders recognized that Scripture had been unfairly interpreted to demonize “homosexuality,” a concept and indeed an orientation that would not have been understood in Biblical times. Evangelical philosopher David Gushee demonstrates in Changing Our Mind (2014) how the “clobber verses” invoked from Genesis and Leviticus are taken out of historical context and generalized without biblical justification. Presbyterian pastor Carla Gorrell suggested in her letter that Christ Himself ignored the clobber verses and trumped them with the Golden Rule.

Writing from the Catholic tradition, Father James Mallon invoked the spirit of Vatican II and Gaudium et spes (1965) to tell us that the Judeo-Christian tradition valorizes marriage as “an intimate partnership, a community of love.” In his experience, lesbian and gay couples were just as capable of mutual commitment as straight couples—and that there was nothing in Scripture to exclude committed homosexual unions. Rabbi Yoel Kahn spoke of the “enduring loyalty, the meaning of commitment, and the discovery of reservoirs of strength” revealed by couples dealing with AIDS and other adversities. He was certain that God wanted these families embraced rather than shunned by His faith communities.  

Starting with the first Vermont marriage campaign (1997–2000) and continuing with the successful Massachusetts marriage campaign (1999–2004), almost every successful effort to secure state recognition of the families of sexual and gender minorities has prominently featured coalitions of ministers, priests, rabbis, and other religious leaders. In the pivotal year, 2012, marriage equality coalitions prevailed in four state ballot measures, each critically supported by a broad coalition of religious leaders. For example, Maryland’s marriage equality law would certainly have been overturned without the public support from Evangelical leaders, led by Reverend Delman Coates and Bishop Donte Hickman, and from Sister Jeannine Gramick.            

To be sure, the leading critics of marriage equality in Maryland were also persons of faith, such as Archbishop William Lori and Martha Schaerr, the Latter-day Saint. The arguments they and most other religious critics made were grounded in thoughtful exegesis of Scripture and were generally respectful to LGBTQ persons. Thus, today, the Catholic Church and the Church of Jesus Christ have adopted what they consider “tolerant” stances toward sexual and gender minorities:  they do not recognize same-sex marriages but have supported measures barring discrimination against these minorities. While not opposing discrimination, Southern Baptists and other conservative Evangelicals are moving away from homophobic rhetoric and have opened dialogues with the same minorities.

More denominations and congregations will follow the Reform Jews, Episcopalians, Congregationalists, Presbyterians (USA), Quakers, and Unitarians to celebrate committed LGBTQ unions as marriages. And others, like the Lutherans and Methodists, will allow or look the other way when local congregations do the same. On the other hand, conservative Catholics, Evangelicals, and Mormons will continue to be unaccepting, for their own faith-based reasons. (Some churches will be hostile and disparaging.) For those denominations and congregations, the law should and will provide space for them to practice their faith. How far that accommodation for private faith is permitted to go is a matter judges and legislators will consider in this decade.

William N. Eskridge Jr. is the John A. Garver Professor of Jurisprudence at Yale Law School.

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