By Bob Allen
Just before the Martin Luther King holiday weekend celebrating the legacy of a black Baptist preacher active in the 20th century struggle for civil rights, the U.S. Supreme Court guaranteed that a Baptist minister will also play a historic role in determining whether gay couples in the 21st century have a right to wed.
The Supreme Court announced Friday, Jan. 16, it will take up four cases challenging state bans on marriage between couples of the same-sex. One of the four involves Maurice “Bojangles” Blanchard, a gay-rights activist ordained to the gospel ministry by Highland Baptist Church in Louisville, Ky.
“I’ve trusted God each step of this journey, and it has been quite a journey,” Blanchard said in an email shortly after the decision. “It’s amazing that the case will now be judged by the highest court in our land. It’s still hard for me to believe that God called me to ordained ministry in the Baptist church, but see how he makes all things new!”
On Martin Luther King Day in 2013, Blanchard and his partner, Dominique James, were arrested for trespassing when they refused to leave a county clerk’s office after being denied a marriage license in protest of a 2004 amendment to the state constitution limiting legal marriage to a union between a man and a woman.
Their misdemeanor trial in August 2013 was postponed because the pool of potential jurors ran out before attorneys were satisfied that they had an impartial jury. That November a pool twice as large as the first finally produced a jury that found the couple guilty as charged, but fined them just one cent.
On Valentine’s Day 2014 Blanchard and James joined another same-sex couple denied a marriage license in a lawsuit consolidated with Bourke v. Beshear, one of four cases challenging gay-marriage bans in Kentucky, Michigan, Ohio and Tennessee headed for argument before the Supreme Court probably in late April with a decision expected by late June.
The nation’s highest court is set to resolve two legal questions on which lower courts have disagreed: Does the 14th Amendment guarantee of equal protection under the law require a state to license a marriage between two people of the same sex? And, if so, must a state also recognize a marriage between two people of the same sex when their marriage was lawfully licensed and performed out of state?
Russell Moore, president of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, said the decision “could potentially transform the cultural landscape of America.”
“If the Court finds a constitutional right to same-sex marriage, we will have a generation of confusion about what marriage is, and why it matters,” Moore said in a blog Jan. 16. “Beyond that, we have already seen that the Sexual Revolution isn’t content to move forward into bedrooms and dinner tables. The Sexual Revolution wants to silence dissent. The religious-liberty concerns we are grappling with already will only accelerate.”
Albert Mohler, president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Ky., said the legalization of same-sex marriage would represent a “vast change in the entire moral landscape of the culture.”
“We are entering into uncharted territory,” Mohler said in a podcast news briefing Jan. 16. “And Christians understand, armed with a biblical worldview, we’re entering into very dangerous territory, dangerous for human happiness, for human flourishing and for the most important institution of human society.”
Mohler said traditional Christians are interested in the redefinition of marriage less for constitutional reasons than its impact on culture.
“It’s because of love of neighbor,” he said. “After all, Jesus said that was the second-most important commandment in the law.”
“It is love of neighbor that leads us to believe that the redefinition of marriage will have damaging effects, not just on the culture at large but on the lives of specific individuals, including those who will celebrate the decision, including those who will enter into same-sex unions they will call marriage and including millions of people whose lives will be fundamentally changed by the redefinition of marriage,” he said. “Of course the religious-liberty implications are simply massive.”
For Blanchard, however, it’s a story of “how a gay Baptist minister of the 21st century has taken the fight for civil rights all the way to the Supreme Court, with God leading every step.”
Last summer Blanchard performed a marriage ceremony for a lesbian couple from Kentucky who embarked on a three-hour bus ride from Kentucky to Illinois, where same-sex marriage is legal, in a Journey of Faith for Marriage Equality reminiscent of the Freedom Riders, who boarded interstate buses to protest Jim Crow laws in the segregated South in the early 1960s.
A win for marriage equality, he said, “could be a powerful witness for our denomination and faith as a whole.”