Changing Marriage Laws Won't Change the Hearts and Minds of Evangelicals

This week, the Supreme Court announced that -- for now, at least -- the high court will stay out of the marriage equality debate. The justices turned down seven petitions asking the Supreme Court to decide if same-sex couples have a constitutional right to civil wedlock. By declining to review these cases, the Supreme Court has fast-tracked the legalization of same-sex marriage in at least five states.

But despite this judicial victory for civil marriage equality, the battle for hearts and minds -- especially among evangelicals -- continues.

Consider, for example, the recent Values Voter Summit, where thousands of socially conservative religious and political leaders converged in Washington D.C. to discuss this year's mission: "Defending the Dream, Defining the Future." In their view, nowhere is this "dream" in greater need of defense than on the topic of marriage.

Marriage equality opponents -- like Brian Brown of the National Organization for Marriage and Congresswoman Vicky Hartzler -- spoke against civil marriage for committed same-sex couples over the course of the weekend, and neither made any distinction between civil and sacramental marriage.

The religious voices represented at the Values Voters Summit -- and the evangelical voices in particular -- don't hold a monopoly on values in the marriage equality debate.

A growing number of evangelicals who are shifting to support marriage equality tell a different story. A survey published earlier this year by the Public Religion Research Institute identified a distinct generation gap in the evangelical church: While only 19 percent of older white evangelicals supported marriage equality, 43 percent of white millennial evangelicals aged 18-33 stood in favor.

In a recent op-ed, one representative of the Southern Baptist Convention -- an evangelical denomination that stands in stark opposition to marriage equally -- casually dismissed these millennials as "precocious" and unserious.

I'd suggest a different explanation: More and more evangelical conservatives are rethinking their position on gay marriage because they've discovered that, no matter what their theological convictions may be about marriage and sexuality, these beliefs need not dictate legislation over our pluralistic nation.

Holding this viewpoint doesn't require evangelicals devalue their faith -- or the institution of marriage. While many Christians interpret certain verses in the Bible as being critical of same-sex relationships, the book is silent on whether the United States government should bestow on these relationships the same tax treatment and basic relationship rights it offers to opposite-sex relationships.

In fact, attendees of the Values Voter Summit might consider providing some Biblical references of their own. What Bible passage should we reference to justify discrimination based on sexual orientation? What Christian principle is the basis of the belief that Christians should spend time working to make their theological beliefs the law of the land instead of working to be witnesses of the Gospel by doing justice?

Instead of answering these questions, the most strident voices in the marriage debate spend their time suggesting that government recognition of loving, same-sex relationships will put us on the proverbial slippery slope towards government recognition of practices like incest and plural marriage. It's a fear tactic, plain and simple, and it's especially harmful to relationships that Christians should be working to build with the LGBT community.

As more states continue to recognize same-sex marriage, more Christians will be asked to confront their faithful perspectives on the issue. And while judicial decisions -- like today's announcement by the Supreme Court -- are encouraging, it's important to remember that ending constitutional debates about same-sex marriage doesn't end the dialogue.

At Evangelicals for Marriage Equality, we are committed to having conversations with evangelicals all across the spectrum both theologically and politically on this issue, to forge a compromise that allows this disparate group to strengthen marriage equality without weakening their faith.

Changing the law doesn't change the hearts and minds of evangelicals. Christian opinions, like those voiced at the Values Voters Summit, show that we still have a lot more work to do.