How Marriage Equality Strengthened Marriage And Changed Religion

Obergefell v. Hodges, the U.S. Supreme Court’s definitive marriage equality verdict, celebrates its second anniversary today, June 26th, 2017. Nine days earlier, the National Organization for Marriage (NOM) held a sparsely attended march on the Court to rally against what its followers consider the Court’s “redefinition” of marriage. NOM’s speakers dramatically declared that marriage equality has proven to be the greatest threat to marriage and religion - two central pillars of our civic society - in the new millennium. We think that NOM has it half right: marriage equality has transformed both marriage and religion, but not in the ways in which the critics have alleged.

Like other defenders of traditional marriage defined as one man, one woman, NOM claims that Obergefell is causing a further decline of marriage. It has never been clear why this should be the case, as Obergefell has only served to expand the institution of marriage and has undermined a competing institution. In religion, culture, and business, the expansion of the enterprise and the elimination of competition is typically viewed as a symptom of robustness and vigor.

In June of 2015, when Obergefell was decided, there were an estimated 368,000 married same-sex couples. Just a year later, that number rose to 491,000 legally married same-sex couples.

One of those couples, plaintiffs in Obergefell, is April DeBoer and Jayne Rowse, two nurses who are nurturing a family of five adopted children—Nolan, Ryanne, Jacob, Rylee, and Kennedy—in Hazel Park, Michigan. They are so devoted to their children that they originally brought suit only to obtain joint adoption rights: marriage would be about the parents, while adoption was all about Nolan, Ryanne, and Jacob (pictured above, with their moms), the three children they were then raising. A federal judge coaxed them into amending their complaint to seek marriage equality.

The night the U.S. Supreme Court handed April and Jayne their victory, they asked the same federal judge to preside over their marriage ceremony. Given their kid-centric parenting philosophy, they changed the ceremony so that each parent exchanged vows with the children as well as with each other.

The DeBoer-Rowse marriage, and many others like it, scarcely can be seen to have harmed the institution. Data from 2015 indicates that the Obergefell year saw a small increase in the marriage rate; a small drop in the divorce rate; and a small drop in the number of non-marital births. We do not claim Obergefell “caused” marriage to rebound in this modest way, but the data is certainly inconsistent with an argument that it wounded the institution.

Where Obergefell has made a discernible difference, however, is that the tables have turned on competing institutions, especially domestic partnership. Before June 2015, four states had repealed their same-sex domestic partnership laws when they moved to recognize marriage equality, and municipalities and corporations were following suit. In Arizona, state employees in same-sex domestic partnerships were notified right after Obergefell that their eligibility for benefits would now depend, instead, on marriage. In an October 2016 survey, that percentage of large corporations covering same-sex domestic partners fell from 62 percent in 2015 to 57 percent in 2016 - after it had risen sharply from 2014 to 2015. While progressives ought to be concerned about this collateral effect of marriage equality, this is hardly the type of consequence that supports the “end of marriage” doom and gloom hypothesized by NOM.

The other big complaint posited by critics of Obergefell is that equal access to marriage will undermine the religious liberty interests of groups and persons who want nothing to do with same-sex weddings. But the U.S. Supreme Court’s free exercise jurisprudence rules out the possibility that the state can constitutionally require churches and clergy to host or perform same-sex nuptials or can single out such churches for loss of their tax exemptions.

On the other hand, traditionalist critics are rightly concerned that Obergefell contributes to a larger constitutional culture where marriage equality for LGBT people is considered good and right, not just a tolerable aside. Traditional religious norms about sexuality and gender are being questioned. So the photographer who would not have imagined working at lesbian wedding ten years ago now risks violating a municipal or state anti-discrimination law today. Many parents feel helpless to prevent their children from learning about marriage equality in public schools, as well as from media outlets and play dates. Some of these religious businesses and parents have asserted their own constitutional rights in court — and by and large, they have been unsuccessful.

In reality, the principal challenge marriage equality poses to traditionalist faith lies within the churches themselves. Religion is changing. Many faith traditions participating in Obergefell did so in support of marriage equality - including the Presbyterians, Episcopalians, Unitarian Universalists, Reformed Jews, and other denominations. Obergefell places more pressure on opposing faith traditions to adjust their pastoral practices and, perhaps over time, even their doctrines. Evangelicals, Catholics, and Mormons face an increasing conflict between their doctrinal requirements for marriage and the views of their Millennials, many of whom support marriage equality.

Pope Francis I reflects one response to marriage equality: Who am I to judge? Many Roman Catholics are following the Pope’s suggestion to focus on inclusive pastoral care for all God’s children, rather than on doctrinal exclusions. On the eve of Obergefell, the Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter-day Saints dramatically endorsed a sexual orientation and gender identity anti-discrimination law in Utah, the reddest of the red states. Barbara and Steve Young—the most famous Mormon couple in America—are openly advocating acceptance of LGBT persons and families. There is little doubt that just like marriage is evolving, religion is also evolving.

The Reverend Delman Coates is the learned, charismatic pastor at Mount Ennon Baptist Church in Clinton, Maryland, a mega-church associated with the traditionalist National Baptist Convention. In 2012, his reflection on Scripture led Reverend Coates to lead the successful tolerance-of-diversity campaign for marriage equality in Maryland. For him, Obergefell was “a wonderful opportunity to re-examine the biblical texts often cited as condemnations of homosexuality. Upon a careful and closer examination of these texts in their original language, it becomes clear that these oft-quoted texts are condemnations of sexual violence, rape, abuse and exploitation, not consensual same-gender relationships.” Today, instead of just preaching tolerance, Reverend Coates reads the Bible to sanction, endorse, and celebrate committed LGBT families.

Is Reverend Coates the final word on faith and marriage? Not at all. On the eve of Obergefell, the pastor lost his position on the executive council of the Hampton Ministers Conference because of this issue. There will surely be a sorting process, where some churches and faith traditions remain opposed to marriage equality, and others will follow a tolerant-but-not affirming stance, while others fully embrace LGBT families. This is a process that Obergefell has encouraged — but how much religion changes will depend on thousands of decisions by families and congregations all over America for many years to come.