Expressing Faith Through Marriage Equality

Progressive religious leaders should be a strong voice in the fight for marriage equality, writes Sarah Dreier. Opportunities to do so abound this week.

The Reverend Dr. Jane Spahr, a retired Presbyterian minister, performs a same-sex marriage in California last year in a direct challenge to church doctrine. (AP/Eric Risberg)
The Reverend Dr. Jane Spahr, a retired Presbyterian minister, performs a same-sex marriage in California last year in a direct challenge to church doctrine. (AP/Eric Risberg)

Read more: Benefits Denied: Federal Laws Discriminate Against Same-Sex Couples

This week, religious leaders across the country are joining policymakers, lawyers, and gay rights activists in pushing for marriage equality from Washington, D.C. to California. The timing is no accident: Three different efforts to support equal rights in marriage are happening this week, and it is equally propitious as last Sunday Dustin Lance Black—the gay screenwriter of the film Milk—accepted his Oscar with a message of hope.

As millions in America and around the world watched, Black encouraged lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender youth to look past their churches, governments, and families that discriminate against them and reminded them—and all of us— “God does love you.” Lauding the courage of Harvey Milk, one of the first openly gay American elected to substantial public office, Black held out the hope that the LGBT community would soon enjoy equal rights nationwide. This week could be a pivotal step toward that promise. Three discriminatory initiatives—California’s Proposition 8, the federal Defense of Marriage Act, and the U.S. military’s “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell” policy—all face legal and legislative challenges.

On Monday Congresswoman Ellen Tauscher (D-CA) re-introduced a federal bill that would repeal the “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell” policy. Rep. Tauscher, speaking at a Center for American Progress Action Fund event, said that the repeal reflects her values as an American and a practicing Catholic. Like Black, she too was critical of church failures to support LGBT equality.

Today the Gay and Lesbian Advocates and Defenders filed a federal lawsuit challenging Section 3 of the Defense of Marriage Act. DOMA Section 3 overrides any state-recognized same-sex marriage and denies those couples all federal benefits that are available to married heterosexual couples, including tax and social security benefits. The case, Gill et. al. v. Office of Personnel Management et. al., argues that Section 3 creates first- and second-class marriages in Massachusetts (which recognizes same-sex marriages), thereby denying same-sex married couples their constitutionally guaranteed right to equal protection.

On Thursday, the California Supreme Court will hear oral arguments to determine the constitutionality of Proposition 8, a ballot initiative that overturned a previous state Supreme Court ruling and amended the state constitution to limit marriage to a union between a woman and a man. The initiative passed with a slim majority of popular votes in November. Last month, the California Assembly and Senate Judiciary Committees endorsed this legal effort to overturn Prop 8. The full state legislature will vote on that resolution in the coming weeks.

By discriminating against some Americans on the basis of their sexual orientation, Don’t Ask Don’t Tell, DOMA, and Prop 8 compromise the principles of liberty, equality, and justice upon which our nation was founded. This discrimination also clashes with the basic call for love and inclusion that is a cornerstone value across faith traditions.

Faith-based groups and gay rights advocates are joining together to present strong moral arguments for LGBT inclusion and marriage equality. Leading up to Prop 8, California clergy and religious governing bodies publicly announced that the initiative goes against both scripture and American legal precedents in favor of equal rights. Major national denominations, California church coalitions, religious leaders, and interfaith organizations from around the country filed amicus curiae briefs to the California Supreme Court opposing Prop 8. They joined with the NAACP, the ACLU, and other civil rights organizations to support same-sex civil marriage and argue that gender-based discrimination dangerously violates the right to religious freedom.

These religious groups include the California Council of Churches, the United Church of Christ, Progressive Jewish Alliance, Unitarian Universalist Alliance of Congregations, Religious Society of Friends, Archbishop Mark Steven Shirilau, the Episcopal Bishop of California, and several other individual clergy and religious activists.

Yet the civil fight for same-sex marriage remains a deeply contested issue, especially in religious communities. It raises morally complex questions for many religious Americans because some interpretations of spiritual texts frame homosexuality as a sin, and many conservative religious organizations have played a key role in the passage of anti-LGBT legislation.

There is no question that some religious groups exclude LGBT members from their communities and congregations and use pungent moral language to oppose civil same-sex marriage. Fifty-eight percent of white evangelicals still oppose any legal recognition for same-sex couples. Motivated by the passage of Prop 8, religiously supported state initiatives against marriage equality and adoption rights for same-sex couples are likely to grow in the coming years.

But many other religious groups welcome LGBT believers into their communities and are now strong gay rights advocates. And younger religious Americans are more supportive of same-sex marriage than the older members of their groups. Straight and gay religious leaders hold key roles in gay rights activist groups and serve as public spokespeople for marriage equality. Indeed, a growing number of religious denominations across America welcome gay, lesbian, and bisexual members into their congregations and bless same-sex unions.

The ordination of openly lesbian, gay, or bisexual clergy remains a vexing issue among denominations. A few have ordained lesbian, gay, and bisexual clergy but encountered significant dissent and internal conflict for this decision. Far more still exclude LGBT leaders from their clergy roster. Nevertheless, some denominations are considering the question of LGBT clergy in the coming year.

Local congregations have stepped up in support of their LGBT members; Presbyterian, Episcopalian, Lutheran, UCC, Catholic, Jewish, Muslim, and Mormon communities have chosen to officially welcome LGBT members and proclaim a theology that supports LGBT equality. Many congregations host interfaith and community dialogues, Bible studies, and local outreach efforts to spread the message that straight and gay people are equal in the eyes of God, and to support LGBT equality efforts in their neighborhoods.

These religious alliances will be increasingly important in the coming months. Twenty-nine states have constitutional amendments that exclude same-sex couples from the definition of marriage, and more are expected to address marriage and adoption restrictions for same-sex couples in the 2010 mid-term elections.

There is a long road ahead to overturn Prop 8, DOMA, and Don’t Ask Don’t Tell and move toward nationwide marriage equality. Amid these civil battles, religious leaders should continue to promote an image of marriage and family that celebrates the diversity of the American people and reflects God’s unconditional love and acceptance. For their part, congregations can work to build LGBT-friendly communities and be assertive, loving voices in the ongoing fight for marriage equality.

Read more: Benefits Denied: Federal Laws Discriminate Against Same-Sex Couples

Sarah Dreier is the Assistant to the Faith and Progressive Policy Initiative and serves as an assistant to senior research fellows.

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