WASHINGTON – The Southern Baptist Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission (ERLC) has joined a diverse coalition of religious organizations in telling a federal appeals court that state laws limiting marriage to a man and a woman are not based on hostility toward same-sex couples.
The Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission and four other religious bodies filed a brief Feb. 10 urging the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals in Denver to uphold the right of the citizens of Oklahoma and Utah to define marriage as only a heterosexual institution. Federal judges in both states have struck down constitutional amendments restricting marriage to the union of a man and a woman.
“The government shouldn’t subvert the democratic process in a quest to institutionalize the sexual revolution,” ERLC president Russell D. Moore said in a Thursday (Feb. 13) news release. “The fact that this is happening in Utah and Oklahoma should send a signal to our churches that the struggle for soul freedom and religious liberty should concern all of us, everywhere, all the time.”
The brief’s filing came the same week as federal courts continued to rule in favor of gay marriage. A judge in Virginia ified Thursday (Feb. 13) the state’s laws and amendment restricting marriage to heterosexuals, and a judge ruled Feb. 12 Kentucky must recognize marriages of same-sex couples performed in other states.
Same-sex marriage is legal in 17 states and the District of Columbia, and federal judges have ruled in favor of such unions in three other states – Oklahoma, Utah and Virginia. Courts have blocked enforcement of those decisions while they go through the appeal process.
The Utah amendment struck down by a judge in December gained nearly a two-thirds majority in a 2004 ballot initiative, while the Oklahoma amendment invalidated in January received approval from 76 percent of voters, also in 2004.
The ERLC-endorsed brief describes as a “spurious charge” the frequent assertion that support for biblical, traditional marriage is based on anti-homosexual hostility.
“The accusation is false and offensive,” the brief says. “It is intended to suppress rational dialogue and democratic conversation, to win by insult and intimidation rather than by reason, experience, and fact.”
The brief says, “Our faith communities bear no ill will toward same-sex couples, but rather have marriage-affirming religious beliefs that merge with both practical experience and sociological fact to convince us that retaining the husband-wife marriage definition is essential.”
In his ruling, federal judge Robert Shelby said Utah’s laws deny “gay and lesbian citizens their fundamental right to marry and, in so doing, demean the dignity of these same-sex couples for no rational reason.”
Federal judge Terence Kern wrote regarding Oklahoma’s marriage amendment, “Exclusion of just one class of citizens from receiving a marriage license based upon the perceived ‘threat’ they pose to the marital institution is, at bottom, an arbitrary exclusion based upon the majority’s disapproval of the defined class. It is also insulting to same-sex couples, who are human beings capable of forming loving, committed, enduring relationships.”
The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops filed the brief, which was joined in by the National Association of Evangelicals, the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod and the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, as well as the ERLC.
The diverse groups say in the brief, “Our theological perspectives, though often differing, converge on a critical point: that the traditional, husband-wife definition of marriage is vital to the welfare of children, families and society.”
The brief asserts the Utah and Oklahoma amendments “cannot be explained as manifestations of animus toward any citizens but as a safeguard against perceived overreach” by judges in the states.
Research shows alternatives to the “husband-wife marital home” produce “significant risks” – including the likelihood of poverty, juvenile delinquency and unwed teenage parenthood – in society and demonstrate why the government has an interest in traditional marriage, according to the brief.
“Children need their mothers and fathers. And society needs mothers and fathers to raise their children,” the brief says. “That, in a nutshell, is why society needs the institution of male-female marriage, and why Utah and Oklahoma are right to specially protect and support it.”
The brief also asserts support for traditional marriage based on religious viewpoints does not invalidate Utah and Oklahoma’s amendments.
“Declaring a law void because it adheres to traditional moral beliefs is contrary to the fundamental constitutional right of religious citizens to participate fully in the process of self government as believers,” according to the brief.
The marriage laws of Utah and Oklahoma “are entitled to be judged on their merits based on settled rules of law – not on a more demanding standard born of suspicion toward religion, religious believers, or their values,” the brief says.
On the same day the brief was filed, the federal Justice Department officially announced new, wide-ranging policies in support of same-sex marriage benefits even in states where such unions are illegal. The policies, and rulings by judges on same-sex marriage, followed the Supreme Court’s June invalidation of a section of the federal Defense of Marriage Act that defined marriage as only between a man and a woman. That ruling enabled same-sex couples to gain access to benefits previously limited to heterosexual, married couples, but it declined to say states cannot limit marriage to a man and a woman.
The case from Utah is Kitchen v. Herbert, while the case from Oklahoma is Bishop v. Smith.
(EDITOR’S NOTE – Tom Strode is Baptist Press’ Washington bureau chief.)