Conventional wisdom had the Supreme Court issuing its decision in the Obergefell v. Hodges marriage case on the last day of the term (Monday, June 29). But conventional wisdom did not hold sway in the session’s last days, and the Court ruled Friday to mandate same-sex marriage across the nation.
What happened between Friday and Monday is a window into the future for the issues of marriage and religious liberty.
Over the weekend, those applauding the Court’s decision bathed the White House in rainbow lights and published adulatory front pages in newspapers across the country. LGBT activists proclaimed that marriage redefinition is only the beginning of their agenda. They called for more action on sexual orientation policy and increased focus on transgender issues. A New York Times columnist writing in Time magazine called for an end to religious organizations’ tax-exempt status; a Pennsylvania paper announced it would soon ban op-eds opposing same-sex marriage (a position later walked back after a storm of protest), and commentators began casting aspersions on religious liberty in matters of marriage and sexuality.
By Sunday night, what would have been a swelling crowd of same-sex marriage proponents outside the Supreme Court, bristling in anticipation of a Monday morning decision, was instead a candlelight prayer vigil by supporters of marriage as the union of a man and a woman. Some 200 gathered to pray, sing, and hear from clergy, marriage movement leaders, and yound adults upholding the truth about marriage and religious liberty. For these and many others, the Supreme Court’s monumental decision has catalyzed a countercultural resolve to restore a true understanding of marriage in culture and law after decades of erosion.
For those who seek to live according to biblical teaching, the most urgent public policy priority is to protect in federal and state law the freedom to speak and to act consistent with the truth about marriage. Christian schools and colleges are and should remain free to teach a biblical view of sexuality and marriage, and to hold their students and faculty to conduct standards consistent with that teaching. Faith-based ministries helping individuals overcome addiction and poverty are and should remain able to form a staff that shares and lives according to the tenets of their Christian mission.
A bill introduced in Congress, the First Amendment Defense Act, seeks to guarantee these freedoms. The legislation would prevent the federal government from discriminating against individuals or groups who believe that marriage is the union of one man and one woman. Federal bureaucrats would be prohibited from revoking a Christian school’s tax exemption, for example, or otherwise discriminating against such groups or individuals in grants, contracts, and accreditation. Governors can take similar action to prohibit their state agencies from retaliating against those who hold to the historic understanding of marriage—the view President Obama held until a few years ago.
Such protection would ensure the freedom to articulate the truth about marriage and to go about our daily lives accordingly, without fear of government coercion. In response to Friday’s disappointing decision, some have suggested retreat from a hostile public square into communities of the faithful. That is not a viable strategy. Such enclaves would need the kind of protection in law that can be achieved only by the active engagement of the faithful in public life. On the other hand, those who seek bolder engagement to restore laws about marriage as the union of one man and one woman will first need protection of the right to express dissent from government’s new orthodoxy on marriage.
No doubt opponents will lash out with vitriol against such basic protections, as we saw this spring in Indiana. This should not take us by surprise, nor should we let others be taken in by such distortions of the truth. We will need to be prepared to debunk misinformation with clarity and charity.
But preserving the freedom to speak and to act in accord with the understanding of marriage as a man and a woman will be worth little if we do not use it. That means, first, speaking up and, second, diligently forming the next generation’s understanding of marriage and sexuality to withstand the strong, new cultural tides.
Sunday night’s vigil in front of the Court illustrates the kind of forums Christian believers and other citizens will need to create in order to preserve the freedom to speak publicly the truth about marriage. For those who consider themselves non-political or who have never taken a public stand on their convictions—whether at a school board session, town hall meeting, march, rally, or just standing up for a belief in a neighborhood discussion—now would be a good time to get over that inhibition. Some may be reticent because they are put off by the tone or tactics of the folks they hear—or that the media exaggeratedly portray—in the public square. The answer in such cases is not to stay home and criticize from afar, but to get into the arena to do better, with more creativity.
We must also be clear why we speak up for marriage as the union of a man and a woman. For Christians, it is not only troubling that the Court’s decision enshrines in law a view of marriage opposed to Scripture’s teaching. It is also troubling that the Court rejected the reasoned argument that marriage law set apart the union that brings together the two halves of humanity as the source of the future of humanity. Such laws prioritized the need of children for a mother and a father, in contrast to redefinition, which puts the desires of adults first.
Moreover, Christians’ interest in justice and the good of our neighbors leads to a concern about the right use of power. On this count, the Supreme Court overstepped its authority by ending democratic deliberation about marriage policy even though nothing in the Constitution required the judicial redefinition of marriage or gave the Court the right to interject itself in the question. On the basis of the Constitution, the matter should have been left to the American people. The disregard for the rule of law should trouble us.
As Chief Justice John Roberts observed in his dissent, “The majority’s decision is an act of will, not legal judgment. The right [to same-sex marriage] it announces has no basis in the Constitution or this Court’s precedent.” Christians and all citizens should condemn such arbitrary government, in the interest of justice and the common good.
The Court’s decision on Friday was like a tidal wave hitting land after building up for some time. Some express hope that we will experience calm after the storm. That hope will prove illusory.
As the dissenting justices note, a judicially imposed answer to such a fundamental question in the midst of democratic debate will prove unsatisfactory. The Court’s decision in Roe v. Wade, imposing nationwide the right to abortion on demand, failed to settle the abortion debate, and this decision will not settle the marriage question. Moreover, the aftershocks will continue as activists push social changes that further erode even the basic understanding that we are created in the image of God, male and female. In other words, we do not have the luxury of setting aside the questions involved in the Court’s marriage redefinition. They will continue to loom in many different issues for the foreseeable future.
As a result, it is critically important to build a firm foundation and to be connected to the truth in the context of community. Children today will be surrounded by a much different plausibility structure than their parents when it comes to issues about sexual identity and behavior. As sociologist Peter Berger explained in a 2010 interview with Albert Mohler, “Beliefs become plausible if they are supported by the people around us. . . . [W]e were created as social beings and much of what we think about the world depends on support by important people with whom we live.” It will take intentional worldview formation and witnessing it in practice among a community of believers to help the next generation navigate this brave new world.
Do the Next Thing
Elisabeth Elliot’s passing a few days before Court’s decision brought to mind her advice: when the things around us are turned upside down, do the next thing. Now that the tidal wave of judicially imposed same-sex marriage has hit our shores, the task of restoration is very clear. We should get busy doing it.
As the young adults said at Sunday’s Supreme Court vigil, we are called to be faithful and to not be afraid. The waves will keep crashing, but the truth cannot stay submerged for long.