For religious liberty scholars and advocates there is little doubt that the defining issue of this generation is the conflict of rights between religion and other rights — namely sexual orientation and reproductive rights.
At least in the United States (and other developed countries), it is the conflict of rights that presents the hardest question. Paraphrasing the famous aphorism, when does the right of one group to swing its fist end and another face begin?
On March 6, 2015, the General Conference, along with the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, filed an amicus, or friend of the court, brief in what is potentially one of the defining cases of this struggle — the dispute over whether the U.S. Constitution mandates that states recognize same-sex marriages. The brief the church filed was, to use legal parlance, “in support of neither party.” What that means is that the Adventist Church didn’t take a position on the narrow legal issues before the court regarding government and marriage.
Read related story: "Church Fears Same-Sex Marriage Ruling May Stifle Religious Freedom"
On first reading, this might surprise some church members, especially non-lawyers, given the church’s very clear stance on marriage and sexuality. Could this mean the church is backing away from its biblical stance on marriage? The answer is an unequivocal “No.” But to understand why the Adventist Church filed this brief at all, let alone in the manner it did, it is necessary to understand what is at issue legally and what is not.
The issue currently before the Supreme Court is not directly about religious liberty. The two questions the court will answer are: (1) Must states issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples? and (2) Must states recognize other states’ same-sex marriages? The second question really comes into play only if the answer to the first question is “no.” Neither of these two questions directly impacts churches or people of faith, but are rather about what government must do, not private individuals.
That, of course, is not the end of the story because if states are compelled to recognize same-sex marriages, the religious liberty implications are numerous. For those interested, the brief gives a more complete picture of these upcoming conflicts, but suffice it to say, they go well beyond pastors having to perform gay marriages (which almost certainly they will not be required to do). But how the court decides to resolve the current case, and in particular the language it uses, could have a significant impact on religious liberty, the Seventh-day Adventist church, and its ability to carry out its mission in faithfulness to the Bible.
The reason for this is because the federal government and every state have some form of anti-discrimination laws on the books. Every state and the federal government protect against gender discrimination. Thirty-six states protect against marital status discrimination, and 23 have specific sexual orientation protections. Importantly, though, 34 of these states and the federal law have some sort of religious exemption from these laws.
It is possible, depending on the language the court uses, that the court could wipe out all of these exemptions. In other words, the Supreme Court could say that not only do the states have to recognize same-sex marriage, but when it comes to this issue, religious exemptions are unconstitutional. If the court were to say that opposition to gay marriage is motivated by animus or is a form of “invidious discrimination,” this would imperil not only all the current religious exemptions but also any future exemptions.
But wouldn’t the church be better off just opposing any governmental recognition of same-sex marriage? Wouldn’t this be the easiest way to stand up for religious liberty? Shouldn’t the church stand up for traditional marriage and its biblical beliefs in court? The problem with this line of thinking is that it ignores reality, the difference between the church and the state, and how best to protect our interests in the long-term.
The reality is that regardless of what the Supreme Court does, same-sex marriage is here to stay. States have always been free to recognize same-sex marriage if they chose to. Twelve states have recognized same-sex marriage through the legislative process. Similar legislation is pending in others, and there is little question that “marriage equality,” as its proponents call it, is gaining much wider acceptance in society. No matter what happens in late June when this decision is handed down, gay marriage, at least in some places, is here to stay. The church is going to have to conduct its mission in a society that has diverged from the church’s views on marriage — without compromising our firmly held beliefs.
This dichotomy, between the church and the state, is neither new nor unknown to the Adventist Church. How much easier would it be for our members if society kept Saturday as a day of worship rather than Sunday? Government has even enshrined this preference in the form of Sunday closing laws and Saturday mail delivery. We have often advocated that government shouldn’t show preference for one religious belief over another. Adventists uniquely understand both in our history and our eschatology that it is entirely inappropriate for any church to advocate that government pass a law simply because that church believes the Bible says so.
Those defending the right of states to only recognize marriages between a man and a woman understand and agree with this principle of separation of church and state. They are not basing their defense of these laws on the Bible or any religious belief. Instead, the states have offered secular reasons for their laws. Without going into detail, these secular reasons center around the ideal setting to raise kids (heterosexual marriage with two biological parents) and the ability of the state to prefer these relationships over same-sex relationships and give only the heterosexual marriages the title and benefits of “marriage.” Proponents of traditional marriage often described it as a choice between “child centered” versus “adult centered” views of marriage.
Regardless of the merits of these arguments, and there is a lot of debate surrounding them, the church’s view on marriage is not based upon these secular reasons. Yes we believe that science and reason support what God tells us through the Bible and the Spirit of Prophecy, but we are not dependent on the findings of social science for our Fundamental Beliefs and how we choose to honor God.
It would be rather strange for a church to base its beliefs on social science or secular reasoning. Human reasoning and belief are often subject to change. In many ways, the whole point of religious belief and believing in God is to affirm faith in something larger than human thought.
Social science would also be a rather precarious foundation on which to base one’s belief. It was not that long ago, in 1973, that homosexuality was dropped as being labeled a mental disorder. This change by the American Psychiatric Association had no impact on the church’s views, in part because those beliefs were never based on psychiatry in the first place. This doesn’t make the church anti-science; it simply means our beliefs come from the Bible, not from human beings. To file a document in court even implying that our beliefs are based upon secular reasoning would be not only unwise but disingenuous.
This does not mean that the Adventist Church cannot speak in the public square or must mute its voice in any way when it comes to moral issues, including issues of marriage and sexuality. The church not only has the right but the obligation to speak on this and other moral issues. But we are not a church that se
eks to impose God’s laws and order through human laws. It is the work of the Holy Spirit to change individual hearts and bring persons into conformity with God’s will.
For all things there is a season and a time. A fight in the U.S. Supreme Court about how the Fourteenth Amendment should be interpreted is, at its heart, a secular question, not a religious one. While we made our position on marriage known to the Court, this was not the time or forum to give a Bible study on marriage or sexuality. Rather, it was more appropriate for us to speak to what affects us, and that is our right to believe as God instructs us and carry out our mission without governmental interference.