Since the wave of marriage equality first began to sweep the globe, many Christian leaders have expressed concern over what this might mean for them. Many worry that the state (whichever state or nation they hail from) may impose upon them a legal obligation to perform same-sex weddings against their convictions. It is indeed true that in some places this has happened, but by and large it hasn’t been an issue … until now. People are starting to call for this, citing discrimination, and a defeated bill in the U.S. state of Georgia this week would have protected against such a law. The question I wish to discuss today is whether or not the state has any business making Christian leaders perform same-sex marriages at all?
It may surprise you when I say that I am strongly against making church leaders perform same-sex weddings. Allow me to explain.
Among the many values that I espouse, separation of church and state is high on my list of priorities. The church is, of course, subject to certain laws (though not enough in my opinion as I feel they should be paying taxes) – governance is, after all, the role of government. But when it comes to matters of faith, religious conviction, doctrine, and things of that nature, well, we have the protection of religious freedoms for a reason. Now, I am all for fighting against the church. I criticize Christianity, and a number of churches in most of my writing, and I have good reason for it. They have no right to influence us in the public square unless we are all afforded the same opportunity, but their practices within their houses of worship are some of the many things freedom of religion is meant to protect. As distasteful and hurtful as their refusal to accept same-sex couples is, it does not fall under the category of religious practice that has to be banned for obvious reasons (ie: human sacrifice, sharia law, etc). When we do ban such things as a church refusing a couple wishing to marry, we venture onto shaky ground. A precedent for restricting freedoms is set, and that puts us all at risk.
Marriage is NOT a religious institution. It is a legal institution in which the marriage license, at least the one that is binding, is issued by the state. As a structure responsible for ensuring free and equal protections under the law, it is incumbent upon the state to legalize and legitimize marriage equality. Not so for the church. While I think that churches that do not perform or recognize same-sex marriages are wrong and should be confronted about their discriminatory beliefs and principles, having the state mandate their actions in this regard would be an actual violation of religious freedom.
At this point in a growing number of nations, marriage equality is the law of the land. Same-sex couples can get married the same as heterosexual couples can, and enjoy the legal benefits that go along with that. There are also a small number of Christian denominations and churches that do believe in marriage equality. The United and Presbyterian denominations, some churches and dioceses within the Anglican/Episcopalian communion, and a scattered number of others, for example. LGBTQ+ Christians who wish to get married in a church can make that happen, and I do hope to see more churches open their doors to them in the coming years. But none of this happened through legal mandate. The churches that solemnize same-sex marriage decided to do so on their own. This is what has to happen in places where church and state are recognized as two different entities with very different roles.
If things were different, if the church issued legally valid marriage licenses for example, I would feel very differently about this. And it’s not that I think churches should be given a pass on their exclusion. It’s just that marriage equality as a matter of law, is a legal issue. Many churches believe and do things that I and others are disgusted by, but they have the freedom to do those things because we have freedom of (and from) religion. I wouldn’t want to live in a country where this was not the case. Passing legislation that makes Christian leaders perform religious ceremonies that go against their religious convictions is, in my opinion, a step too far. Such a restriction on religious freedom effectively puts my own freedoms at risk, and that is something I am not prepared to accept.