Same-Sex Marriage is Here: Focus on Religious Liberty

Marriage. Marriage is what brings us together, today.

No, that’s not entirely accurate. As with nearly every other aspect of life in these nominally-United States, marriage has been politicized for years. What we think about marriage segregates us along cultural lines. On the one side are the culturally permissive groups – academics, libertarians, radical genderwhozits, as well the generally apathetic. On the other side is the more traditional population, suffering whiplash at the dramatic and sudden reversal of the marriage situation as compared to a decade ago.

This week the Supreme Court declined to take up the appeals stemming from numerous circuit court decisions that overturned state bans on same-sex marriage. Because the Court saw no conflict between the various rulings of the lower courts, their position was that there was no need for them to step in and play referee. Same-sex marriage is now the law of the land in 35 states, and DC.

No doubt more cases are in the works, and same-sex marriage advocates will continue to push for legalization in all 50 states. Consider that in 2010 we still had the Defense of Marriage Act and a Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell policy in the military. The pace of this (fundamental, revolutionary) change is remarkable. It’s been less a march than a sprint. But what happens after that final victory is won? Where does all this progress end?

For many activists, I have no reason to doubt that once a legal union is attainable they will retire to their homes to enjoy all the wonderful aspects of being legally married – not least the tender ministrations of the Internal Revenue Service. However, I suspect there is a group for whom total and unassailable legal victory will not be enough. Not content with simply winning the fight to redefine the most basic unit of civilization – the family – these people will continue to press their considerable advantage in order to make a religious objection to same-sex marriage anathema.

Those masochists who have spent more than a few minutes discussing social issues online know that for the permissive set, any expression that falls short of total affirmation is akin to a Klansman punching a baby. My concern is that as state law is amended, churches will come under increasing public pressure to perform same-sex marriages. It needn’t be through legal challenges, though in time those will come. Quite a bit of headway can be made by applying social pressure, as we have seen in the case of photographers, bakers, and chicken sandwich makers who were insufficiently enlightened in their views.

Several denominations have already dropped any pretense of doctrinal consistency and begun blessing these unions, but there are some notable holdouts. I can’t blame a gay couple for thinking that maybe St. Patrick’s in New York would be a grander setting for their nuptials than the Unitarian “church” down the street. However, the chances of the Catholic Church relaxing its view on the nature of marriage are fairly slim – no matter what you think about Pope Francis. This invites challenge and condemnation.

Ultimately, I suspect that within the next few years we will see test cases brought against churches for things like refusing Communion to gay couples, or refusing to allow a ceremony on private property. While these may be dismissed under the Constitutional protections still enjoyed by religious groups in this country, things like that can change. Long-term, churches that continue to discriminate and publicly preach “hate” may find their tax-exempt status threatened. The Christian community would then have to choose between fully practicing their faith and being able to fully participate in public life. For those who believe in the immortal soul, that’s not a choice at all.

The climate fostered by such public attempts to shame the Christian church for its fairly well-known and longstanding beliefs would be highly toxic. We already have assumptions of bad faith on both sides of the political divide. Such an action would take bad faith out of the realm of supposition and into a plain fact of life. Is it possible for us to hate our fellow Americans more than we already do?

One point needs to be stressed: politically, the fight against same sex marriage is over. The courts have overturned the slow process of letting the people of each state decide how to order their communities, and short-circuited that whole “laboratory of democracy” thing. That’s the reality.

If we are truly concerned about preserving religious liberty in this country we need to begin actively working for it now. Waiting until same-sex marriage is official in every state will be waiting too long. Resources and talent must be directed toward preserving what we still have rather than a quixotic attempt to turn back the tide. This doesn’t mean that opponents of same-sex marriage need to shut up about their beliefs. Not at all. However, we need to pursue smart, attainable political goals. Making a case for religious liberty should be a slam dunk.

It wasn’t long ago that the idea of two men getting married was laughable, even in the gay community. Things can change, and fast. The smart thing to do is beat the drum for religious liberty protections now, before the forces of progress begin chipping away at the Constitutional protections of churches.

To say that petty discrimination – indeed outright religious persecution – cannot happen here is naïve. As we’ve seen, all that’s required to enact sweeping societal change is a combination of public opinion and an unelected judiciary.

Social conservatives must grapple with things as they are, not as we’d wish them to be.