The U.S. Supreme Court’s long-awaited decision on marriage is vital enough to call for two friend-of-the-court briefs, Southern Baptists’ lead ethics and religious freedom specialist decided.
Russell Moore, president of the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission (ERLC), led the entity to join other religious organizations in a brief in support of the biblical, traditional definition of marriage. He also signed on as an individual with other scholars to a brief defending the historic view of the institution.
The high court will hear oral arguments regarding same-sex marriage April 28. It is expected the justices will issue an opinion before they adjourn this summer. If so, gay marriage could be legal throughout the country by the end of June or states could maintain their authority to define marriage as only between a man and a woman.
Moore acknowledged the enormity of the Supreme Court’s action.
“The stakes are high,” he told Baptist Press in a written statement. “The price of getting marriage wrong is steep, and as in the rest of the Sexual Revolution, children will foot much of the bill. It matters tremendously to our nation and to future generations that we agree with God on this.”
In the briefs, Moore said, the parties “are standing together for a truth as old as human civilization itself. The state did not create the family and cannot re-create it. We appeal to the Supreme Court to recognize and to stay within the limits of its authority. Marriage matters because marriage is about more than registering relationships at a courthouse. Marriage is about the common good and flourishing of society.”
It is even more than that for Christians, Moore said. “I believe with Jesus and the apostles that marriage points beyond creation to the gospel union of Christ and his church.”
Same-sex marriage is now legal in 37 states, nearly tripling the 13 states where it was legal in mid-2013. It also is legal in the District of Columbia. Court rulings have produced legal gay marriage in more than two-thirds of those states.
The high court’s April 28 oral arguments will come in a case from the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals, which became in November the first federal appellate court to rule states have the authority to limit marriage to the union of a man and a woman. Five other appeals courts have invalidated state laws that prohibited gay marriage.
In their friend-of-the-court brief filed April 2, the ERLC and 18 other organizations contend a ruling by the justices mandating states recognize gay marriage “would generate church-state conflicts that will imperil vital religious liberties.” The U.S. Constitution does not require such an action by states, the brief says.
Their support of male-female marriage is not based on hostility or ignorance but “concern, conviction, and love,” the organizations say. The accusation that they and millions of other religious Americans defend traditional marriage out of religious bigotry against gays and lesbians is a slander that seeks “to intimidate and suppress public conversation on a complex issue by equating disagreement with hatred,” their brief contends.
“Laws reserving marriage for the union of a man and a woman were the universal rule in this country until a decade ago. They are not tokens of ignorance and bigotry now,” the organizations say in their brief.
Mandating gay marriage on the basis of hostility by objectors would not only erode religious liberty but would harm the constitutional rights of religious individuals and organizations, according to the brief. The religious free-exercise rights of voters and organizations that support traditional marriage laws “would be hollow if millions of religious persons were made second-class citizens because their basic beliefs and motivations – and thus any laws they support – are deemed tainted by animus,” the brief says.
Though they have theological disagreements, the organizations believe traditional marriage “is indispensable to the welfare of the American family and society.”
In addition to the ERLC, other organizations joining in the brief include the National Association of Evangelicals, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Mormons), Assemblies of God, Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod, Christian Legal Society, Brethren Church, Evangelical Presbyterian Church, Christian and Missionary Alliance, Wesleyan Church and Church of God, Cleveland, Tenn.
Moore signed onto a brief by Robert George, professor of jurisprudence at Princeton University, and Sherif Girgis, a co-author with George of What Is Marriage?, a book defending traditional marriage.
In the brief, the scholars argue the states in question that have restricted marriage to a male and a female have appropriately addressed “the equal dignity of self-identified members of sexual minority groups, a child’s entitlement to a mother and father, and a democratic polity’s right to self-determination” without producing conflicts.
Such marriage laws do not deny the “equal dignity” of each person, their brief says. Challengers to the Sixth Circuit opinion falsely believe the Constitution requires the government “to change its institutions expressly to affirm sexual minorities” and also misunderstand “the social purpose of marriage law, which never has functioned – and could never function – as a mechanism for affirming adults’ individual worth by recognizing any consensual bond of their choice,” according to the brief. “Accepting this view would have absurd logical implications and harmful effects.”
A Supreme Court ruling that strikes down traditional marriage laws could provide the basis for expanding the institution further, the scholars’ brief says. “If marriage law violates people’s dignity by leaving out the loving bond of their choice, no principled basis remains for limiting marriage to two-person or permanently committed bonds, or for limiting institutional recognition of sexual minority groups to gays and lesbians,” according to the brief.
The result would be harm to children, the brief contends. “[D]issolving the links between marriage and any historic marital norm besides consent … could also spread the dignitary harms that children often suffer when deprived of the sense of identity and self-worth that can come from a stable bond to their own mother and father,” it says.
In addition to Moore, others among the 45 scholars signing onto the George-Girgis brief are Micah Watson, associate professor of political science at Union University; Francis Beckwith, professor of philosophy and church-state studies at Baylor University; J. Budziszewski, professor of government and philosophy at the University of Texas; Leon Kass, professor emeritus at the University of Chicago; Hadley Arkes, professor of jurisprudence at Amherst College; and Eugene Rivers, chief policy adviser to the presiding bishop of the Church of God in Christ.
Southern Baptist leaders joined in another friend-of-the-court brief defending male-female marriage, this one filed by the Liberty Institute. Among the signers were R. Albert Mohler Jr., president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary; Daniel Akin, president of Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary; Robert Jeffress, pastor of First Baptist Church, Dallas; and Owen Strachan, president of the Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood.
The Sixth Circuit’s opinion came in challenges to laws in the states of Kentucky, Michigan, Ohio and Tennessee. Voters in those four states approved constitutional amendments between 2004 and 2006 that limited marriage to a man and a woman.
The Supreme Court has consolidated the four cases and limited consideration to two questions: (1) Does the 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution require a state “to license a marriage between two people of the same sex?” and (2) Does the 14th Amendment require a state “to recognize a marriage between two people of the same sex when their marriage was lawfully licensed and performed out-of-state?”
The court set the time for oral arguments on the first question at 90 minutes. It allotted one hour for arguments on the second question. Normally, oral arguments in a case are only an hour in length.
Courts have overwhelmingly issued opinions in favor of gay marriage since the Supreme Court struck down a section of the federal Defense of Marriage Act in June 2013, saying it violated “equal protection” under the Constitution by refusing to recognize same-sex marriages. Though the high court refused to say states could not limit marriage to heterosexual couples, most courts have used the decision as a basis for striking down state laws that define marriage as only between a man and a woman.
The expansion of same-sex marriage has resulted in a growing clash between the rights of gay couples and the religious freedom of individuals and organizations. Florists, bakers, photographers and other business owners who have conscientious objections to providing their services for same-sex ceremonies have been penalized or are facing penalties for their refusal.
The case is Obergefell v. Hodges.
(EDITOR’S NOTE – Tom Strode is the Washington bureau chief for Baptist Press, news service of the Southern Baptist Convention.)