The Religious Liberty to Support Equal Marriage

“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.

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The “Religious Liberty” quiz on Huffington Post, and why I wrote it.

Dear friends,

Over the past few days my blog has seen an increase in traffic driven by my latest post on Huffington Post’s religion section. (Found here: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/rev-emily-c-heath/how-to-determine-if-your-religious-liberty-is-being-threatened-in-10-questions_b_1845413.html ) That post made the leap from the religion page to the front page, has been shared nearly 5,000 times on Facebook (edited: now about 12,000 times), and has been picked up by other sites. Thank you all for the shares and for your blog visits, emails, tweets, and words of encouragement. I’m humbled.

I wrote the piece on my iPhone last week while sitting watching the Republican National Convention with my partner. That is not to say that this is an anti-Republican post. Not at all. (I know some wonderfully inclusive Republicans and some of the rhetoric at the DNC on this frustrated me just as much.) It’s just to say that was the occasion for its writing.

You see, my partner and I are marrying one another this November at her UCC church in Boston. We are blessed by the fact that our marriage will be recognized legally in both our state of residence and the state in which it is performed. More importantly, it will be recognized by our church. It will not, however, be recognized by the federal government. The question of whether it will be soon, and whether it will be in more states, is causing an increase in calls of “religious oppression” from anti-gay religious folks.

Getting married two weeks after the presidential election, in a year when debate over equal marriage is more divisive than ever, adds a whole other layer to the stress of wedding planning. It means that every quip about equal marriage feels like a referendum on your own upcoming marriage. (And really, between the catering and the invitations, I already have more than enough to think about.)

That’s why watching the RNC, every slight about “real marriages” and “real families” cut us to the quick. And every reference to “religious liberty” used to deny my partner and I the rights we deserve just offended me. My partner and I are religious people who love God. We love the church. And we love Christ, who taught us to love our neighbors as ourselves. But the fact that our neighbors, and our Christian brothers and sisters, were claiming that they were the oppressed ones here, was not just offensive; it was ludicrous.

My partner and I want basic rights. And our basic rights do not intrude on anyone’s religious liberty. How that has become so convoluted, I don’t know. But those who would use religion to claim they are being victimized by the rights of others, are being intellectually, and religiously, dishonest. No one is forcing churches to marry gay couples. Any clergy member will tell you that they are legally free to deny marriage to any couple for any reason with impunity. They know that, but they spread false fear to their communities in an effort to deny the rights of others. Meanwhile, our own church, which blesses our marriage, is being denied equal legitimacy under the law by the actions of these religious groups who attempt to withhold legal recognition from the marriages other religious groups bless.

So here we were, sitting in our living room, watching politicians say that the marriage of a minister and a seminarian would destroy religious liberty in America. And it’s so offensive, so painful, and just so, so false. This is the stuff that used to make me want to drink. Now it just makes me want to fight harder for my rights, and the rights of my partner, and the rights of all of us…because, gay or straight, this is about all of us.

That’s how the quiz was born. Because it’s important for the ones who have oppressed others for so long to understand that they, in fact, are not being oppressed. I know what oppression feels like. I grew up gay in the Bible belt. I was bullied in the name of religion. That’s not what “religious liberty” is about. THAT is oppression. And I’m thankful that, finally, my own religious liberty is being taken seriously by more and more of my fellow citizens. I hope the quiz helps more to be able to realize what “religious liberty” really means.

God bless you all.

Rev. Emily C. Heath

New blog at Huffington Post: Separation of Church and Santorum

“I don’t believe in an America where the separation of church and state are absolute. The idea that the church can have no influence or no involvement in the operation of the state is absolutely antithetical to the objectives and vision of our country. … To say that people of faith have no role in the public square? You bet that makes you throw up.” –Rick Santorum

Rich Santorum’s quote about Pres. John F. Kennedy’s speech on the separation of church and state has received a tremendous amount of airplay this week. Even if you remove that last viral line, it’s a strong pronouncement of Santorum’s displeasure with the limits imposed on religious institutions in the public arena. It’s enough to make the ears of any person of faith who thinks differently than Santorum perk up.

Speaking as a pastor in a mainline Christian denomination (you know, one of the ones Santorum says is in “shambles”) I’m surprised to find myself in some agreement with one part of his quote. I also believe that it is “antithetical to the objectives and vision of our country … to say that people of faith have no role in the public square.” And yet, I would suspect Santorum and I have very different ideas of what that means.

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