Have the Religious Right Hijacked Marriage?

Co-authored with Tasha Sabino

Not everyone is celebrating the latest Supreme Court ruling granting all consenting adults the right to marry. Those who oppose the new law of the land tend to be conservative Christians who argue the religious nature of the term. By definition, marriage means "union" in the literal sense. The word is used in many contexts, most commonly in reference to the traditional union between a man and woman. But what the religious right fails to appreciate is the difference between a religious marriage and a civil marriage. Civil marriage is a non-religious, lawfully sanctioned union recognized by the federal government for certain constitutional rights, guarantees and protections including social security benefits, joint tax filings as well as health and death benefits. Here in lies the need to obtain a marriage license through an agent of the state. In the past, a couple would first solemnize their marriage through the act of a civil matrimony performed by an officer of the court. Couples interested in more traditional nuptials would then follow with a religious ceremony performed within a house of worship by a pastor, priest or bishop. The US government decidedly took action to allow religious officials the right to perform legal marriages as a way to aid the newly married couple with procedural convenience. (Today, anyone can officiate a legal marriage provided that they obtain a certificate to do so.) Unfortunately, some members of the clergy have taken this judicial privilege offered by the court and used it to hijack the institution of marriage. Misconstruing its legal definition, many religious conservatives have conflated the ideas of civil and religious marriage; however, the two concepts are not exclusively bound. For those Christians who believe that faith-based matrimony is between a man and a woman, they have the right to that conviction under the first amendment. It does not, however, give the adherents the right to withhold civil marriage nor deny same-sex couples of their constitutional rights simply because they differ in liturgy.

Among those evangelical Christians leading the fight against marriage equality are the same people who were legally marginalized a mere 50 years ago and have still yet to receive full justice and equality in a white supremacist society. Many black Christians are now playing judge, jury and executioner, quick to deny other stigmatized groups their own civil rights. Ironically, white conservative groups, who have a long history of demonizing African Americans, found a way to use black communities to push their conservative agenda. For example, the Church of Jesus of Christ of Latter-day Saints (i.e., the Mormon Church), who banned people of African descent from full participation in the faith for 150 years and still has yet to offer up a cogent apology, solicited black ministers in their fight to pass Prop 8, a ballot proposition to ban same-sex marriages in the state of California. (Of note, it is illegal for an organized religion, who benefits from tax-exempt status, to interfere with a government policy.) Americans have a long history of xenophobia, making it easier to target and ostracize out-group members. In the end, LGTBQ communities and communities of color are all in the same fight for equality and full peoplehood. The ruling by SCOTUS is fundamentally about civil rights, not religious freedom. Faith-based rights are already protected under the US constitution, which gives anyone the right to believe in the "sin" of same-sex unions and subsequently deny access (or discriminate) within their sanctuary. And yet, those same citizens should demand equal protection under the law for all Americans regardless of religious ideology. In fact, to believe otherwise is to support the notion of a theocratic state. Lest we forget, we are a democracy.