This article was originally published by The Mennonite

The Supreme Court’s ruling on same-sex marriage

Let me put on my lawyer hat for a moment—and a bit of the pastoral as well—to write briefly about June’s ruling by the Supreme Court. As a result of that decision, it is now the law of the land that individuals have the right to marry a person of the same sex, a right that cannot be denied by the states.

It’s useful to understand the Court’s decision from a legal perspective to know how it does and does not impact churches.

The ruling was based on the 14th amendment to the Constitution.

This amendment provides that all U.S. citizens are entitled to equal rights and fundamental liberties under the law.

It may help to realize that while marriage is a religious rite for churches, under U.S. law marriage is a civil institution. As such, the Court ruled, gays and lesbians have the same right to marry as heterosexual couples. Similarly, in 1967, the Court determined—also on the basis of the 14th Amendment—that the states could not deny marriage licenses to mixed-race couples.

The Court has been criticized—including by the dissenting justices—for taking the question of marriage away from the states and their democratic processes. However, it is consistent with historic American understanding that our Constitutional democracy means both (1) majority rule and (2) the protection of the fundamental rights of minorities, even against the will of the majority. Ensuring the protection of such minority rights has often fallen to the judiciary, as for example in Court rulings that struck down legal segregation.

The Court’s decision may raise the issue at least in some areas of a conflict between religious freedom and the civil rights of gays and lesbians. The Court explicitly clarified that this ruling does not require churches to recognize same-sex marriage or require pastors to officiate at such weddings. But other areas are murkier.

The Court did not decide the question of discrimination against gays and lesbians in other realms of society, such as employment, public accommodations and housing. Congress has passed legislation outlawing such discrimination on the basis of race, religion and gender, but not sexual orientation—though there is a brewing judicial fight over whether the 1964 prohibition of discrimination on the basis of sex implicitly applies to sexual orientation. Many states have antidiscrimination laws that also include sexual orientation, but most do not.

This means that some questions are still undecided. Can businesses deny service to same-sex couples on the basis of the owners’ religious beliefs? Which kind of faith-based organizations (besides churches themselves) will be exempted from employment nondiscrimination requirements? Can religion-based colleges whose students receive government loans limit married student housing to heterosexuals? Can faith-based adoption agencies that receive government funding refuse to place children with same-sex couples?

The Court’s ruling doesn’t answer these questions.

During the next few years, they will be debated and determined by a combination of evolving societal values, democratic political processes and perhaps more judicial decisions.

Some Christians have expressed feeling persecuted by this and other recent legal and political decisions. A more sober perspective is that some “traditional” Christian values no longer hold the position of privilege in U.S. society and law that they once had.

This isn’t exactly new—lots of retail businesses have been open on Sundays for decades now. Neither is it the case in every area. For example, last year the Court ruled that “closely held” businesses can refuse to provide insurance covering birth control for its employees on the basis of the religious objections of its owners.

In this reality, whatever our views, it’s important to remember that above all we are called to express the love of Jesus to all people in all situations. Living out such a testimony is the most faithful witness that we can make at this and any time.

For Christians a more important question than the legal one is whether same-sex marriage is compatible with Christian faith. This is increasingly a matter of disagreement among Christians. Biblical scholars, church leaders and ordinary believers who love Jesus come out on both sides. Some are convinced that Scripture condemns same-sex marriage. Others believe Scripture and Christian faith allow for same-sex marriage.

Mennonite Church USA continues to hold the traditional view of marriage.

However, some conferences and congregations within our denomination differ and now accept and affirm same-sex couples.

We may each have our own personal views about this question. My own view has changed in recent years to believe that Scripture and Christian faith do make room for same-sex marriage. To see why I’ve come to that conclusion, read my article “Beyond Dual[ing] Narratives on Same-Sex Marriage” (June 2014).

But as long as the theological and biblical debate continues in the wider church, it is fitting that we all hold our views with humility and a listening ear to what is being said by our brothers and sisters on both sides, as we seek the truth in love.

Martin Shupack, director of advocacy for Church World Service and part of a Menno­nite church in Alexandria, Va.ShupackMartin

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