The Alabama marriage divide

March 10th, 2015

As if Alabama Governor Robert Bentley didn’t have enough to deal with regarding the legalization of same-sex marriage in his state. It started with the ruling in January by U.S. District Judge Ginny Granade that the state’s gay marriage ban was unconstitutional. Then Alabama Supreme Court Chief Justice Roy Moore countered by declaring that probate judges weren’t obligated to follow Granade’s order, and Bentley’s obligation was to ensure that they didn’t. 

Now Bentley’s own pastor, the Rev. Gil McKee of the First Baptist Church of Tuscaloosa, has called the governor out. “Governor, I don't care if all 49 states go for this same-sex marriage business, let's be different in the state of Alabama,” McKee said to his congregants on Feb. 8, repeating a conversation between he and Bentley. “Give the word to our chief justice to call all our probate judges and say, 'Don't you issue one single license until the federal government does their thing and until we decide whether we're going to follow that or not; don't issue one of them,' I'm telling you the people of this state would rally behind that.”

McKee undoubtedly is right that most Alabamians would rally with him, but perhaps not as many as he thinks. A 2014 poll conducted by the Public Religion Research Institute found that while only 32 percent of us currently support gay marriage, 48 percent of Alabamians under 35 do. Brave clerics are among those supporters, such as ordained Baptist minister Dr. Ellin Jimmerson, who married the first same-sex couple to get a marriage license in Madison County.

Bentley has made it clear that he agrees with his pastor’s theology. But at least for now, the governor has decided correctly not to support Moore’s call for judicial anarchy. 

"I think it's important for the people across the country to realize that the governor of Alabama today is not the governor of Alabama 50 years ago," Bentley said to, a clear reference to former segregationist Gov. George Wallace.

It was exactly 50 years ago that Wallace presided over Bloody Sunday, the beating of peaceful civil rights protestors on the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma. That outrageous assault, along with other atrocities committed by law enforcement and enabled by Wallace, inspired Congress to pass the 1965 Voting Right Act.

The sting of those sins still smarts 50 years later. So will this one, if Moore and McKee prevail. However, since a majority of Alabama’s probate judges are issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couples, they have lost that battle for now. 

The U.S. Supreme Court is scheduled to hear four same-sex marriage cases this spring and issue a ruling by June. If Granade’s ruling is upheld, it will place Alabama on the right side of history and in line with the wisdom of our nation’s Founders.

Many evangelical Christians have forgotten or are ignoring the strict separation of religion and law that the Founders promoted. James Madison was unequivocal about it in Memorial and Remonstrance, published in 1785: “The Religion then of every man must be left to the conviction and conscience of every man; and it is the right of every man to exercise it as these may dictate. This right is in its nature an unalienable right.”

Churches are free to embrace whatever theology they want. But the government is not supposed to be in the preaching and proselytizing business. Government is supposed to protect the unalienable right of each citizen to pursue her or his moral path, whether inside or outside of faith.

"Somebody said, 'What's the right thing?'” McKee told his church. “The right thing is you stay with God's definition of marriage, and if they drag us to court, if they drag us to jail, if they drag us to D.C., come on and drag us."

McKee’s description of the right thing is fine for his members, if that’s what they choose to believe and practice. But it violates the U.S. Constitution to force that view on all the citizens of our great state. 

Same-sex couples constitutionally are entitled to equal protection under the law. They have the right to a government-sanctioned marriage, just as heterosexual couples do. 

And if Alabama doesn’t want to give them those rights, maybe it should get out of the marriage business completely.  

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