I may be in the verge of breaking the law…
All of a sudden the same-sex marriage debate has become personal. Last week’s oral arguments before the United States Supreme Court were very revealing as to where we are going next. Religious freedom is directly in the crosshairs. To be more specific, my religious freedom as a pastor seems to now be up for debate.
We were told all along the way that the Church has nothing to worry about as it relates to the same-sex marriage issue.
Individual pastors would never be forced to perform weddings that violate their religious convictions. But it seems we may have been sold a bill-of-goods, so to speak.
Justice Antonin Scalia asked this as part of the oral arguments before the Supreme Court: “is it conceivable that a minister who is authorized by the State to conduct marriage can decline to marry two men if indeed this Court holds that they have a constitutional right to marry?”
Scalia is drawing a distinction between same-sex marriage being legalized on a state-by-state level as is currently the case, versus it being legalized by the high court of the land. As a state issue, exceptions can be made to exempt pastors from being forced to perform same-sex weddings. But if the Supreme Court rules that the right to same-sex marriage is a Constitutionally protected civil right, then religious freedom protections may fall. And Scalia as much as said so in answering his own question, “if it’s (same-sex marriage) a constitutional requirement, I don’t see how you can (decline to marry two men).”
That means that if the Court rules this summer that same-sex marriage is a civil right on the federal level, then I may be breaking the law if I, as a pastor, refuse to perform a same-sex wedding. This is serious business. And, as I said, it’s intensely personal now. Violating someone’s civil right is no small thing. It could cost me financially. Just reference the recent $135,000 fine levied against a cake baker in Oregon. It could even cost me jail time. Oh, I am certain there are those who will say I am overreacting. But I’m not so sure. When it’s you facing jail time or burdensome fines, one is not so dismissive.
Here’s how marriage works in the State of Arkansas where I am a pastor. It is a criminal offense to perform a wedding in Arkansas unless your credentials, as a minister, are on file at any county courthouse in the state. So when I moved to Arkansas after seminary, I went down to the Washington County courthouse with my Certificate of Ordination. I went to the office where marriage licenses are issued. They made a copy of my ordination credentials and I signed “the book.” Any pastor in Arkansas knows what I mean when I say “the book.” So now, every time I do a wedding and I sign the marriage license, there is a place at the bottom that I fill in. It says something like, “My credentials are on file in _______________ County, in book ________, page _________.” So I dutifully, as an officer of the court, fill in Washington as the county and denote that I am listed in book H on page 345.
This is the most important part of the discussion and how all of this talk about marriage and the Constitution and violation of the law fits together. As I stated, because my credentials are recorded in the Washington County courthouse, when I do a wedding, I am acting as an officer of the Court. Or in other words, as an officer of the State. That means I have bound myself to what the government defines as marriage. So just like a clerk in the courthouse can be fired or worse for refusing to issue a marriage license to two men or two women, I may, depending on how the federal ruling goes, be on the verge of failing to perform my role as an officer of the State if I refuse a same-sex wedding. I will be breaking the law and will face the penalty that comes with such.
So this is where we may very well be headed.
I’m a solution guy. So what’s the answer to this for me and thousands of other pastors in the United States who hold a religious objection to same-sex weddings based on our belief in the biblical definition of marriage?
I see a day coming where we will necessarily separate civil marriage from Christian marriage. This means I will go back to the Washington County courthouse and have my name stricken from “the book.” I will surrender my credentials to perform civil marriage ceremonies in the State of Arkansas. I will no longer put myself under the tyranny of State on this issue.
Well, what about Christian couples who want to get married? What do we tell them?
This is what we will begin to tell our Christian men and women in our churches. When they are ready to get married, they need to go down to the local courthouse, pay the fee for the marriage license, and have the Justice of the Peace perform a civil ceremony right there in the courthouse. Then we tell the couple to come back to the church for their Christian wedding. I will be happy to perform any Christian wedding and bless the union before God and the witnesses present. It means that the Church will begin to issue it’s own marriage licenses separate from the State. With no civil meaning but with great biblical meaning.
And is this really so bad? It would be new to this country but what I have described above has been the norm around the world in many countries for as long as people can remember. In fact, I was told that such was the case in this country long ago, but it made more sense to “marry” together civil and religious weddings the way we have it today. But that was during a time when the civil and the sacred were on the same page.
That is no longer the case in this nation. I actually think that a separation of civil marriage from Christian marriage would be good thing. It would, I believe, add new and important meaning to what Christian marriage truly is. Something I think we lost way before the same-sex marriage debate took hold.