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Wednesday, July 1, 2015

Civil Rights and Religious Freedom

It's been a big week in the USA. The Supreme Court ruled that marriage is open to all persons, regardless of sexual preference and must be honored in all 50 states.
 This has set off a firestorm of reactions that have ranged from pure joy to total devastation. The devastation seems largely to come from the conservative Christian community who seem to interpret this ruling as an attack on their religious freedom and a sign of moral decay in our country. I cannot understand why someone's freedom feels threatened by this ruling. How does allowing homosexuals to marry infringe on my religious rights? If I don't want to marry gay people, I don't have to. I can still go to church in any church I want to, and I can practice my religion in any manner possible. As for the question of moral decay...well, moral decay abounds all around us. I feel great sadness that people are more outraged about gay marriage than they are about the many black churches being set on fire, and the number of assault rifles that are on the street. Sometimes the sense of moral outrage in this country is rather misguided.

While I respect that within the Christian community there is a huge range of opinion on the issue of homosexuality, I feel in no uncertain terms that that is an entirely separate matter than the civil ruling around marriage that has been handed down. Here in the US, we grant a substantial number of civil advantages to married people. That's in part why this ruling is so important. And as long as we are going to grant a number of civil advantages to married people, then we have a moral obligation to make sure that those civil advantages are available to all people. Maybe the more important question is,"Why do we grant such civil advantages to married people"?

In addition to this question, it's important to state that I truly believe that clergy should NOT be allowed to legally marry people. Marriage is a civil arrangement and therefore should be granted under civil authorities, not church authorities. If people want a religious ceremony to be married before God, they can go to clergy and ask for them to perform a religious wedding ceremony, after they have had a civil ceremony. This is the way it is in many other countries around the world. This entire debate would settle down if clergy were not the ones with the "powers invested in me by the laws of this state" to pronounce people married. We really need to separate civil from religious all the way through. Then, clergy would have the full right to say yes or no without impinging on the legal rights of those involved.

As for businesses wanting to withhold services to those with a lifestyle with whom they disagree, I just simply have to say, is this really the only action in life that you disagree with? Clearly, they service people who take part in lifestyle issues that they don't agree with. Why single out this particular action? It is not your call as a provider of public services to make moral judgements on the people you serve. So if you work in a county clerk office and part of your job is to give out marriage licenses then it is your moral and legal obligation to do your job without interpretation or personal consideration. If you can't do this, then you need to quit your job rather than trying to do your job discriminately. There was a time when I was offered a job as a liquor manager in a local grocery store. I was uncomfortable with that being my central job so I turned it down in spite of better pay. I did not ask the grocery store to shift the manner in which is sold liquor to people. But I made a choice back then to not be the one potentially selling alcohol to those who were drunks or couldn't really afford it. That was my choice. It was not my call to make choices for those buying alcohol.

As for people saying that this ruling should not be a court order but rather decided by the people...our track record on righting wrongs through the vote is not very good. Outlawing slavery, giving women the right to vote, getting rid of the Jim Crow laws, may not ever have happened in some places had a higher authority not stepped in. Sometimes our personal opinion doesn't matter. What does matter is what is right and fair to all according to our constitution. Remember how our pledge ends...with freedom and justice for all. We need to keep that in mind as we navigate the public sphere.

Finally, I think Christians need to do more careful analysis of what it means to have a personal, faith-based conviction vs. what should be a legal right for all, regardless of religious belief. We are utterly inconsistent when it comes to this. Luke 16:8 says,"Anyone who divorces his wife and marries another woman commits adultery and the man who marries a divorced woman commits adultery.” Last I checked, most agreed that adultery is morally wrong. Malachi 2:16 proclaims that God Hates Divorce. Clear language regarding how God feels about divorce. Which begs the question: Why are Christians not on the front lines seeking to make divorce and remarriage illegal? Why are the Christians opposed to gay marriage not on the front lines asking for adultery to be outlawed? 

What I am after here is a consistent ethic for the way in which we determine legalities. For something to be legal is an entirely different thing than to say it is morally OK. In the case of homosexual marriage, the Christian community is split on whether or not it is moral or not. But that doesn't really matter when it comes to the legal sphere. As Christians, we now have an obligation to uphold the laws of the land without discrimination. Clergy do not have to marry same sex couples. Churches do not have to welcome same sex couples. But we need to recognize that the highest court in our land has said that we can no longer discriminate against this population in denying them the civil rights availed to them through marriage in this country. My hope is that the Christian community, no matter where they fall on the spectrum of right or wrong will see that the legal right to marry is an entirely separate thing from how we personally feel about the issue of same sex relationships and move forward with more grace and tolerance than we've recently seen from some corners. Remember the old song, 'They will know we are Christians by our love'? My fear is that the current conversation has re-written these words to say that they will know we are Christians by our hate. 

We can do better and honor God in the process. My prayer is that love really will win. Love for all regardless of our differences.