With marriage equality officially the law of the land (though some states and districts are still denying the right), many politicians and pastors claim that the next step is forcing pastors to perform same-sex marriages against their will, and against their beliefs. This represents a complete misunderstanding of the rights pastors already claim.
A pastor is not required to perform a marriage for a same-sex couple, or any other couple. The First Amendment to the Constitution of the United States guarantees this. It promises that the government will not interfere with a person’s right to freely practice his religion.
To see how the marriage equality ruling affects churches, we should look back at another ruling on marriage: Loving v. Virginia.
If you’re not familiar with this case, it’s the one in which the right to marriage was guaranteed for interracial couples — something that saw opposition at the time. (One frightening detail: “at the time” was 1967 — less than half a century ago.) According to the ACLU, the couple at the center of the case was wed in Washington, D.C., but their home state, Virginia, refused to acknowledge their marriage — and charged them with “unlawful cohabitation.” The Supreme Court ruled in their favor, saying that bans on interracial marriage were unconstitutional.
Since 1967, have churches been forced to accept interracial marriage? Let’s see.
2013-2014: Pastor Donny Reagan of Happy Valley Church in Tennessee refuses to perform an interracial marriage, according to WCYB. (Note: the sermon and marriage comments were in 2013; video went viral in 2014.)
2011: Gulnare Freewill Baptist Church, in Kentucky, votes. Not only will their pastor not perform an interracial marriage, but interracial couples cannot become church members, the Lexington Herald-Leader reports.
2010: From the Sun-Sentinel we learn that an Ohio pastor, the Rev. Donald Ellis of Pleasant Valley Community Church, canceled plans to perform a marriage upon learning that the groom was black.
These churches (and others with similar stances on marriage) likely faced community backlash, but none faced legal sanctions.
Loving v. Virginia assured that the state would permit and recognize a marriage between an interracial couple, not that ministers would be forced to perform a marriage. That’s why there is a marriage case you may have heard of that did, indeed, end with legal consequences.
In 2009, according to the Huffington Post, Keith Bardwell, a justice of the peace in Louisiana, refused a marriage certificate to an interracial couple. Though he didn’t face charges, he did resign over the incident, under pressure. He did indeed break the law, and could have faced a discrimination complaint.
What is the difference between Bardwell and the pastors in the other cases? Those pastors act as leaders of their religion, while Bardwell acts as an agent of the state.
In marriage of same-sex couples, the same principle will apply. A state employee will be expected to do his job, whether or not he approves of the marriage personally. A religious leader, however, can turn down interracial couples, non-Christian couples, young couples, previously divorced couples, and any other marriage they choose. A religious leader cannot be required to perform a same-sex marriage, and claims otherwise are either the result of misunderstanding the law, or deliberately misleading the public.
[Photo by Drew Angerer / Getty Images]