Marriage Law And Religion: Sectarian Lobbies Seek To Wed Church And State

Marriage equality doesn’t require a church to do anything except mind its own business.

Voters in four states will cast ballots on marriage equality next month, among them my adopted home of Maryland. Polls show that the Maryland measure, which allows same-sex couples to wed, just might pass.

Religious Right groups, of course, are doing all they can to ensure that doesn’t happen. They’re mustering all of the arguments we’ve heard before: Same-sex marriage will somehow harm families, it’s condemned by the Bible, it will lead to people marrying bicycles, etc.

Since so many arguments against marriage equality are based in religion, it’s useful to have members of the clergy speak out on the other side. Yesterday, the Rt. Rev. V. Gene Robinson, a prominent cleric in the Episcopal Church, did just that.

In a Washington Post opinion column, Bishop Robinson pointed out that nothing in the Maryland measure forces religious groups to do anything. In fact, the law contains explicit protections for them.

“This bill ensures that religious institutions can continue to believe and practice their faith as they choose, unchanged by the law,” Robinson wrote. “Indeed, although such a freedom of religion is already guaranteed in the Constitution, the proposed law goes out of its way to reassure religious groups of that protection.

“In fact, no clergyperson of any denomination/faith is required to officiate at any wedding, gay or straight,” he added. “A clergyperson has the right to decline any request to preside at a marriage without giving any reason for doing so. That is already the law.”

Furthermore, Robinson pointed out, there are also provisions in the law making it clear that religious organizations will remain free to deny other types of services to same-sex couples.

“For example, even though it will remain illegal to deny a same-sex couple service at a restaurant in the state of Maryland, religious institutions can choose to not open their doors to same-sex couples for rehearsal dinners, wedding ceremonies, and for other marriage-related accommodations,” Robinson observed.

The battle over marriage equality in Maryland has been percolating for several years. I’m pleased to see people like Robinson raising the church-state issue because it’s key to the debate.   

Conservative religious groups have a perspective on how to define marriage and who should be able to get married. That perspective comes from one particular interpretation of the Bible or from decrees handed down by the pope. They want marriage law to reflect those sectarian standards.

I don’t follow pro football, but I was impressed with this insightful comment by Brendon Ayanbadejo, a linebacker for the Baltimore Ravens.

“First and foremost,” he wrote, “church and state are supposed to be completely separated when it comes to the rule of law in the United States. So the religious argument that God meant for only man and woman to be together has no bearing here! America is not Christian, Muslim, Jewish, Mormon, Catholic, or any other religion that is out there. And the pantheon of gods can attest that there are hundreds of them. We are a secular capitalistic democracy. That’s it.”

In Minnesota, which faces a ballot measure that would ban marriage equality, Jonathan L. Eisenberg, an attorney and vice president of Americans United’s Minnesota chapter, laid out the church-state problems with barring same-sex marriage.

“The amendment is, at its core, an attempt to impose one specific religious view on all citizens,” Eisenberg wrote for MinnPost. “That is not the proper role of government under our First Amendment guarantees of free exercise and non-establishment of religion.

“The proposed amendment is based on conservative religious views about homosexuality and ‘traditional’ marriage,” Eisenberg observed. “Its supporters rely on select biblical passages that, by their interpretation, condemn homosexual relations and support the view that only male-female marriages are allowed. They contend that same-gender marriages would violate the ‘sanctity’ of marriage, which is inherently a religious stance…. However, many sects and branches of religions do not share this view.”

Bottom line: Marriage equality doesn’t require a church to do anything except mind its own business. Fundamentalist arguments against it boil down to, “We say the Bible is against it.” The Catholic bishops base their opposition on church teaching. In a secular democracy, they will have to do better than that.