“Religious liberty” is the buzzword of those who are trying to stop the now nearly inevitable legal recognition of same-sex marriage. Recognition of same-sex marriages, they argue, will constitute a real and immediate threat to the religious liberty of people and churches who oppose it.
I’m not sure what they think is about to happen. Maybe they visualize hordes of gay couples trundling down to the local homophobic church and forcing the minister to marry them under duress. Or perhaps they think that two women are going to interrupt “Amazing Grace” next Sunday as they demand an immediate wedding while an ACLU attorney stands nearby with a lawsuit in hand.
I have never seen Christians look more afraid than when they are talking about how churches will be “forced” to perform same-sex weddings should marriage equality become legal. Seriously. It’s a fear I’ve never seen when faced with the very real threats of poverty, child sex trafficking, hunger, or violence. The threat of gay marriage sends some Christians to DEFCON 1, ready to send guards to man the church doors.
Which has always struck me as, frankly, ridiculous. And here’s why. Here is how a clergyperson stops a wedding from occurring in their church: they say “no”.
I know that because I have said “no” to couples wanting to get married in the church I serve. The reasons? I didn’t think they were ready. Or I didn’t think they communicated well. Or they asked me not to say “God” during the service.
The legal recourse I have faced as a result? Nothing. Nada. Zip. That’s because the law already absolutely protects me, as well as every other clergy member in this country, from having to officiate at a wedding I do not believe should occur.
And clergy have used that law for some pretty heinous reasons. They’ve denied interracial couples a marriage in their church. They’ve kept divorced people from marrying again. They’ve refused weddings to couples where the woman does not agree to submit to the husband.
And, as awful as it sounds, they’ve done it all legally.
Every clergyperson knows where the boundaries are on this. Which means that any clergyperson who tells you that the legal recognition of same-sex marriage is a threat to their place of worship is therefore quite simply lying.
And here’s the other thing they don’t tell you. By trying to keep the legal recognition of same-sex marriage from occurring, they are themselves threatening religious liberty in this country.
The reality is that a growing number of religious groups support equal marriage and allow their clergy to religiously marry same-sex couples in their places of worship. This is true for the United Church of Christ, Unitarian-Universalists, some Episcopalians, several Jewish groups, and others. In fact, a number of these groups signed an amicus brief to the Supreme Court supporting equal marriage.
As a clergyperson who officiates at same-sex weddings and offers the blessing of my church, I feel that my own religious liberty to pray as I see fit is what is really under threat here. Why do the prayers of clergy of other churches matter more than my own? Clergy can act as agents of the state when they solemnize marriages, so how come their religious services are backed by the full blessing of the federal government while mine are not? Why is the federal government legitimating some religious views while marginalizing others?
There’s a lot of talk about “real marriage” going around, so let me tell you about what makes a marriage “real”. Last November, my now-wife and I stood up at Old South Church in Boston, a United Church of Christ parish, and we covenanted before God that we would love and support each other for life. When we said those vows, and received the blessing of our church, we were “really married”. The fact that the Commonwealth of Massachusetts and our home state of Vermont recognized it was just icing on the cake.
But unlike every straight couple who has stood up at that church and proclaimed their vows using the same ceremony, we left that church unequal under the eyes of the federal law. We may have received the blessing of our religious community, but we also received a federal tax bill for 2012 that was $1200 higher than a straight couple’s would have been. And when we put our wedding rings on each other’s fingers, we also had to put our names on stacks of paperwork that will (hopefully) ensure that our bond to one another is respected when it comes to pensions, medical decisions, and legal issues.
Why? Why is the blessing of my church worth less under the eyes of the federal government than that of the church down the street? Why does that church get to have a say about the legitimacy of worship services performed in my own? And, furthermore, why do religious groups even get to have a say in the legal status of marriages performed outside of houses of worship?
If we want to talk about religious liberty, let’s be honest. Religious leaders who reject same-sex marriage on the grounds of their own religious liberty are asking for special treatment that tramples on the rights of others. And their religious liberty ends when it begins to infringe on the liberty, religious and otherwise, of others. Because that’s not liberty. That’s oppression. And anti-gay religious groups know nothing about being on the receiving end of it.