Same-Sex Marriage Will Affect the Pews Before the Pulpit

Peter Sprigg is Senior Fellow for Family Policy Studies at Family Research Council. This article appeared in The Gospel Coalition on July 14, 2015.

The Supreme Court has asserted that the U. S. Constitution mandates all 50 states to license civil “marriages” between same-sex couples. You are a pastor who believes that God ordained marriage to be exclusively the union of one man and one woman. You know research shows that, on average, husbands and wives—and children raised by a married mother and father—are happier, healthier, and more prosperous than people in other living situations.  

What should you do now?

In the immediate term, the answer is “nothing different.” If you believe God ordained marriage to be the union of one man and one woman, you should continue to perform or host in your church only weddings that include both a bride and a groom.

The Supreme Court’s decision does not bind churches or clergy. It is about the licensing of civil marriages by the state. Religious weddings performed by religious institutions or leaders are an (almost) entirely separate question.

The First Amendment (Probably) Protects Pastors

Throughout the debate over the potential redefinition of civil marriage, the question of its effect on religious liberty has been a recurring theme. Accordingly, the question “Will my church (or pastor) be forced to perform same-sex weddings?” has often been raised.

Sometimes it’s been raised by Christians who oppose redefining marriage in order to illustrate the potentially shocking implications of such a redefinition. Recently, a rumor raced around the internet that a Vermont pastor had already been sentenced to a year in jail for refusing to perform same-sex weddings.

The rumor was implausible from the start, and was proven to be false, with the purported source being two “fake news” sites. Even supporters of marriage redefinition have willingly replied to such fears, and dismissed them as a straw man. They assure us: “Same-sex marriage will have no effect on religious liberty—no pastor or church will ever be forced to perform a same-sex wedding.” Some legislatures which have redefined marriage, such as Maryland’s, have said this explicitly in the text of their bills.

The First Amendment probably provides such protection already. For example, states surely may not prohibit a person from marrying someone of a different religion. Yet, as Justice Elena Kagan pointed out in oral arguments, there are many rabbis who will not perform a wedding of a Jew to a non-Jew, and they suffer no sanction.

Other Threats to Religious Liberty Will Come First

So if the Supreme Court’s ruling will not force pastors or churches to perform same-sex weddings, is religious liberty perfectly safe? The answer is an emphatic “No.”

This is because the “free exercise” of religion involves more than just the performance of religious rituals by religious leaders in a religious setting. President Obama displays a limited, restrictive view when he refers to “freedom of worship” rather than “freedom of religion.” True religious freedom involves the freedom of all people of faith not only to believe but also to act on their beliefs. Most Americans agree with this concept. Eighty-one percent of Americans in a WPA Opinion Research survey commissioned by Family Research Council agreed that “government should leave people free to follow their beliefs about marriage as they live their daily lives at work and in the way they run their businesses.”

Those most immediately affected by the Court’s ruling are public officials who issue marriage licenses, such as clerks or magistrates. Those unwilling to actively participate in same-sex “marriage” should have some ability to opt out, as legislatures in Utah and North Carolina have acted to ensure. Yet some people—such as the editorial board of the New York Times—actively oppose any such accommodation, spuriously equating a sincere belief that marriage is the union of a man and a woman with racism and segregation.

Persons in private businesses will also come under new pressure, similar to what we’ve seen in the wedding industry. Christian business owners—photographers, florists, and bakers—who have declined to participate in the celebration of same-sex “weddings” have already been dragged into court and subjected to crushing fines. We can expect more of this coercion.

Non-profit status and a religious affiliation or purpose will also not be enough to protect an organization from legal pressure. If Christian colleges decline to rent married-student housing to legally married same-sex couples, will federal tax-exempt status, student loan funds, or (worse yet) accreditation be threatened?

Concerns for Your Church

There are many ways a local church could be affected even if its pastor is not. For example, if a church rents facilities to groups in the community, some may claim it’s a “public accommodation” and should be open to a same-sex wedding and/or reception. (Churches should specify in writing what their policies are for such events. The Alliance Defending Freedom offers models for churches to use.)

Further, some already claim tax exemptions are a form of government subsidy and should not be available to those out of step with public policy. This applies not just to the income tax exemption church members get for their donations, but also to the exemption from local property taxes churches as an organization enjoy. Could your church afford the property taxes on all your buildings and land?

Finally, pastors may not be ordered to perform same-sex weddings—but they might be forbidden to solemnize civil marriages if they refuse.

Not all of these infringements on religious liberty will take place immediately. Some may be avoided altogether. Legislators at both the state and federal level should act as soon as possible to forestall them.

However, if the freedom of clergy to refuse same-sex weddings is all that is protected, true religious liberty will be lost.