We are entering a new day in America. Do you feel excited yet? New things always bring with them a bit of trepidation, but there’s so much buzz about this particular new day that it can’t be bad, right? Well, we’ll see.
What is this new day? It is the day when marriage equality has (nearly) become the law of the land. With the recent Supreme Court non-decision to allow federal appellate courts to reverse marriage laws in five more states we have crossed the line where whether by rare voter approval or the more frequent judicial fiat, gay marriage is legal in more places than it isn’t. The momentum and current political atmosphere suggests that barring what at this point would be a rogue federal appellate court, eventually the Supreme Court will officially legalize it in the remaining holdouts.
How should we respond to this news? There are a variety of options. For the overwhelmingly non-Christian gay rights crowd, Hollywood, the media, and the political left it’s time to party like it’s 1999. They are finally seeing the victory they have worked toward for so long come to fruition. And indeed, regardless of your position on the issue, taking a moment to marvel at the rate and extent of their success is warranted. Never in the history of this nation, and perhaps the history of the whole world, has public opinion on a matter of such significance as marriage been shifted so quickly and so completely as what has taken place here in the past 10 years.
Among the Christian progressives (or as some would prefer, the moderates) the celebration hasn’t been quite as effusive as their ideological kin, but there has been one all the same. I’ve even seen affirmations like (paraphrasing): to deny gay rights is to deny the Gospel.
How about on the cultural right? There are certainly cries of gloom and societal doom from many places there. Some conservative Christians have declared (or have been declaring) that God’s judgment is going to fall on us for this embrace of immorality. Some have greeted it with more of a sense of resignation or even, more infrequently, apathy.
Among the more thoughtful commentators who take a traditional approach to the issue, though, a question is being proposed with increasing urgency: So gay marriage becomes the law of the land…what happens to all the people who don’t agree? More specifically, what happens to all the Christian business owners who work in fields that are some part of the wedding industry who oppose gay marriage on theological and moral grounds? In spite of the advocacy of voices like Dr. David Gushee to make the case for what he calls the revisionist position on the matter, most Christians still oppose it. In fact, a Barna Group survey from last year found that among people they identified as evangelicals 98% say same-sex marriage is not morally acceptable. That’s an increase of 3% from a decade earlier. Now, Barna pegs the evangelical percentage of the population at 8%, but when the total population of the country is 317 million, that’s still 25.3 million people. That’s a lot of business owners who don’t agree with the morality of same-sex marriage and plan to run their businesses accordingly. So then, what about them?
Here’s where we run into a problem. One of the driving claims of the gay rights movement has been that sexual orientation is an absolutely fixed thing making opposition to gay rights the moral equivalent of opposing civil rights. In spite of the fact that this has been shown to not be the case and that even devoted gay rights advocates like Kirk and Madsen acknowledge that sexual orientation is a mix of complex factors that include both nature and nurture, the convenient narrative equating gay rights and civil rights has stuck and is driving much of the political and legal policymaking these days.
In case that isn’t clear, here again is the problem: no one can legally (or morally) deny service to someone on the basis of their race. But, while many even among conservatives on the issue would argue that denying service to someone simply on the basis of their sexual orientation is immoral and should be illegal, gay marriage is a whole different animal…or at least, the folks who would refuse to participate in the celebration of a union they consider immoral on theological grounds believe it is.
The question that needs answering before we get much further into this new day is this: If gay marriage is going to be the law of the land (and all evidence suggests it soon will be) is opposition to it going to be considered a politically, socially, culturally, morally, religiously viable option for people to take? Will the new majority position (at least by power if not by population) which has been screaming for tolerance for years be able to extended to the new minority the thing it was so often denied? So far this has not been the case. So far, every single time religious rights have come up against gay rights in this new day, religious rights have been forcefully denied. One judge even commented that giving up such conscience rights is simply a price of citizenship.
Now, perhaps this is simply a case where turnabout is fair play and too bad for them. But, I would argue that more is a stake. The new minority on this issue opposes gay marriage on religious grounds that have historically been recognized as legitimate. At issue here then is whether or not religiously motivated opposition to same-sex marriage is going to be considered legitimate and if so, will it be protected? So far it has not been. Hopefully the cases involving various bakers, florists, photographers, a New York couple being sued by a lesbian couple (who secretly recorded the phone conversation) for refusing to host their wedding ceremony in spite of their subsequent offer to host the reception, and most recently and unconnected to the wedding industry five Houston pastors who have been told to turn over any sermons on the subject of homosexuality to the city or be held in contempt of court, will prove to be the unfortunate exceptions and not the new rule. If not, our understanding of what the First Amendment means by “Congress shall make no law…prohibiting the free exercise [of religion]” will have to change. The new day requires it.