ATLANTA (ABP) — A progressive Baptist group released a statement Aug. 10 praising a federal judge for upholding both marriage equality and religious freedom by declaring a California ban on same-sex marriage unconstitutional.
But a conservative Southern Baptist seminary president said that, while U.S. District Judge Vaughn Walker’s Aug. 4 ruling paid legal lip service to religious freedom, it may ultimately undermine the freedom of Christians who oppose gay rights.
The statement from the board of directors and staff of the Alliance of Baptists noted that the organization has, since 2004, been on the record as supporting full civil marriage equality and opposing laws “that enshrine discrimination against sexual minorities and define marriage in such a way as to deny same-sex couples a legal framework that allows them to provide for one another and those entrusted to their care.”
It continued: “The recent ruling … overturning California’s Proposition 8 is an encouraging step in challenging such laws. Most importantly, the opinion recognizes the important distinctions between civil marriage and religious marriage. In our Alliance of Baptists family are congregations that have chosen to perform ceremonies honoring the life-long commitments of same-sex couples as well as congregations that have chosen not to perform such ceremonies. For Alliance of Baptists congregations, this decision protects the religious freedom and autonomy of each local congregation, while also protecting the rights of same-gender couples to the civil right of marriage.”
But Southern Baptist Theological Seminary President Al Mohler, in an Aug. 5 blog post, said the decision doesn’t bode well for religious freedom in the long run.
“The religious liberty dimensions of the decision are momentous and deeply troubling,” he wrote. “While Judge Walker declared that the religious freedoms of citizens and religious bodies were not violated because no such body is required to recognize or perform same-sex marriage, the very structure of his argument condemned religious and theological objections to homosexuality and same-sex marriage as both harmful and irrational.
“Beyond this, Judge Walker claimed to read the minds of California’s voters, arguing that the majority voted for Proposition 8 based on religious opposition to homosexuality, which he then rejected as an illegitimate state interest. In essence, this establishes secularism as the only acceptable basis for moral judgment on the part of voters. The judge’s statements condemning religious opposition to homosexuality speak for themselves in terms of animus.”
Walker’s opinion in the Perry v. Schwarzenegger case noted that the existence of same-sex civil marriage did not impinge on the religious rights of those who object because houses of worship and clergy members cannot be forced by the state to solemnize any union to which they object.
However, he also found that much of the pro-Proposition 8 side’s legal arguments purporting to show a state interest in banning gay marriage was based in religiously based opposition to homosexuality. Because he found that there was no compelling secular sociological, psychological or legal basis for denying marriage rights to same-sex couples, Walker ruled, Proposition 8 denied gay people the 14th Amendment rights to equal protection and due process of law.
Religious-liberty experts have said that, under the courts’ current understanding of the Constitution, government entities must have a valid secular purpose for any law.
“[P]urposes that are solely religious do not meet that requirement, so a law based on exclusively religious premises is invalid,” said Bob Tuttle, a George Washington University Law School professor and authority on church-state law. “Religious groups are, of course, free to believe as they see fit, and in general to act on those beliefs, but they have no legal right or power to legislate those beliefs into civil law. In that respect, the ban on laws with exclusively religious premises does limit the ‘liberty’ of religious individuals to enact religious laws, but that's the only sense in which their liberty is restricted by this ruling — or the broader constitutional principle.”
Robert Marus is managing editor and Washington bureau chief for Associated Baptist Press.
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