By almost any measure, the United States of America is clearly moving toward marriage equality. Respectfully, I ask you, our elected representatives, not to hold back the egalitarian movement of fair-minded American citizens. Though I would like to say that the time for the Defense of Marriage Act has passed, the reality is that at no time should this piece of legislation have had any place in our nation. You surely understand that you are neither protecting anyone’s religious freedom by allowing DOMA to continue, nor are you preserving the sanctity of marriage. As a Christian, a Baptist minister, a married man and a patriotic American, I ask you to place yourselves on the right side of history and in compliance with the Constitution and end DOMA’s discriminatory compromise of basic equality for all citizens.
I offer these thoughts not as a casual observer or a passive supporter of marriage equality. For many years I personally struggled with this issue. That struggle eventually brought me to a place at which arguments against gay marriage, against even accepting civil unions, were no longer credible or sustainable when held up to the light of my faith commitment and my devotion to the Constitution. Over the last few years, I have researched the issue of same-gender marriage thoroughly and written about it extensively. I have traveled across the United States speaking to people—gay and straight, Christians and atheists, liberals and conservatives. What has become undeniably apparent to me is, thankfully, that the vehemence with which many of you, our elected officials, continue to oppose same gender marriage is not shared by the majority of Americans.
As the President of Interfaith Alliance, a national, non-partisan organization that celebrates religious freedom and is dedicated to protecting faith and freedom and whose 185,000 members nationwide belong to 75 faith traditions as well as those without a faith tradition, I have written a paper that could be of use in the debate over this legislation entitled Same-Gender Marriage and Religious Freedom: A Call toQuiet Conversations and Public Debates, available at interfaithalliance.org/equality. The conversation around and support of same-gender marriage is a large part of our work.
The so-called Defense of Marriage Act has denied same-gender couples (including those married in states where same-gender marriage is legal) the federal recognition and benefits allowed to all other married Americans for far too long. The passage of the Respect for Marriage Act is a crucial step forward in the fight to right this national wrong and uphold the religious freedom and equality of all Americans, regardless of their religious beliefs or sexual orientation.
The constitutional guarantee of religious freedom is the best perspective from which to view the subject of same-gender marriage and around which to convene a national dialogue on the legality of same-gender marriage. Law, not scripture, is the foundation of government regulations related to marriage in our nation. In America’s diverse religious landscape there are many theological positions on same-gender marriage, some of which support the institution and some that oppose the institution. But the First Amendment’s religious freedom provisions ensure that repealing DOMA and legalizing same-gender marriage on a federal level will not result in a government imposition on religious institutions of a particular view of marriage or limit their speech as it relates to marriage.
Many people seem either to ignore or to be unaware of the fact that, despite the soaring language and lofty images used to describe marriage in most religious traditions, in the United States, marriage is a civil institution. Decisions about who is married and who is not married are the prerogative of the government–not a house of worship, a spiritual leader, or a religious tradition. Lawful marriage does not occur in the United States without a marriage license and a certificate of marriage, both of which must be acquired from an agency of the civil government. The government of the United States recognizes marriage completely without reference to religion. In the United States, marriage is a legal institution–sanctioned and restricted by government. To confuse the civil institution of marriage with a religious institution to be protected by the government is to seriously misunderstand marriage and its relationship to government in the United States.
Our religious freedom protects every house of worship from government intrusion to impose a particular view of marriage or to demand a religious blessing for a special kind of marriage – such as same-gender marriage. The United States Constitution provides a way for the government to keep its promise of guaranteeing equal rights for all people while, at the same time, protecting the freedom of religious institutions to practice their respective doctrines and values. Both religious bodies and governmental institutions can function with integrity while supporting liberty for everybody.
Our elected representatives have a sworn obligation to make decisions guided by the U.S. Constitution, not the sectarian morality derived from a singular religious tradition. To them is entrusted responsibility for providing for the public welfare of all individuals. When it comes to the question of same-gender marriage, the goal should not be to demand that people change their theology. A far better goal is to ask people not to attempt to impose their theology on those who hold a different theological point of view. Marriage should be a right that is available to every citizen, but never an act, ritual, or formal ceremony that any house of worship, denomination, or religious leader should be required to legally perform in contradiction to his or her beliefs.
By passing the Respect for Marriage Act, same-gender couples will no longer be denied equal rights by their government, based on a civil prohibition shaped by one American group’s theological beliefs. And all religious communities will have the religious freedom to refrain from conducting marriages that violate the teachings of their faith, just as those religious communities whose faith teaches the value and holiness of same-gender marriages will have the religious freedom to sanction these unions.
Thank you for the opportunity to submit testimony on this important issue.
Interfaith Alliance is a network of people of diverse faiths and beliefs from across the country working together to build a resilient democracy and fulfill America’s promise of religious freedom and civil rights not just for some, but for all. We mobilize powerful coalitions to challenge Christian nationalism and religious extremism, while fostering a better understanding of the healthy boundaries between religion and government. We advocate at all levels of government for an equitable and just America where the freedoms of belief and religious practice are protected, and where all persons are treated with dignity and have the opportunity to thrive. For more information visit interfaithalliance.org.