Use your religious liberty well

July 29th, 2015

“For freedom Christ has set us free.”
  – Galatians 5:1

Let me begin this by pointing out that I consider same-sex marriage to be within the will of God. I am writing, however, to Christian sisters and brothers who do not share that belief. In what follows I invite you, not to change your mind on this subject, but perhaps to change your behavior.

The Supreme Court’s Obergfell decision, legalizing same-sex marriage in all 50 states, has occasioned much consternation among Christians. Many have expressed concerns that the decision will be interpreted in such a way that requires congregations and clergy to perform marriages of people of the same sex. Beyond that, a number of Christians in professions that involve them with weddings — county clerks, bakers, florists, caterers and the like — have announced their intention to refuse their services to same-sex couples, on the grounds that participating in a same-sex couple’s wedding goes against their conscience, involving them in an activity they consider to be sinful. Many arguments related to religious liberty have been raised in relation to decisions such as these. The gist of the arguments is that for the state to compel anyone to sell a cake or flowers to a same-sex couple violates that baker or florist’s constitutional guarantee of the free exercise of religious conviction.

I’m not here to write a legal analysis of these questions (for which I’m not qualified) but a theological one (for which I might be — you be the judge). First, I want to applaud the attempt to think seriously about what religious liberty means in this situation. Freedom of conscience in matters of religion is one of the signal achievements of American democracy, and should never be taken for granted.

Second, I want to point out that just about every responsible analysis of religious liberty written in light of the Obergfell decision reminds us that the state cannot compel churches to allow same-sex marriage, nor clergy to perform them. The state recognizes church marriage as firmly within the category of religious observance, over which the state has no authority. Churches and clergy have always had the freedom to refuse church marriage to those they deemed unfit for it. That situation is not going to change.

Which leaves us with my third point, regarding all those other folks in lines of work that might intersect with same-sex marriages. Here’s my suggestion: If you find yourself in this situation, use your First Amendment rights to let folks know that you cannot agree that same-sex marriage is right and proper; and then use your freedom in Christ to bake them a cake anyway, as a witness to the gospel of love and reconciliation. Let them know that you cannot support same-sex marriage, but that as a sign of your belief in the God who loves and supports them all the same, you’re going to arrange flowers for their wedding or issue their marriage license.

To those who object that participating in any way with (what you consider to be) a sinful act makes you complicit in that sin, let me simply point out that anyone involved with weddings is already doing this anyway. Given the high rate of divorce and remarriage in this country, can one credibly deny that a large percentage of second and third marriages are the results of adultery — about which the Bible has WAY more to say than it does about same-sex relationships? What would most Christians reply if asked why they perform services for those whose relationships involved the violation of marital vows? “It’s not my place to judge.” That’s simply a negative way of expressing the more positive Christian conviction that “It is my place to serve.”

I can’t think of a more powerful Christian witness than to tell the world that service is the most essential Christian belief. Serving others does not imply acceptance of their bad choices and harmful lifestyles; if it did, Jesus wouldn’t keep washing the feet of sloppy disciples and mediocre sinners like you and me. It simply means that the imperative to love and serve the neighbor comes first in the hierarchy of Christian priorities. Bearing witness to one’s beliefs about marriage is fine, so long as it provides an opportunity to show forth the love of God in Christ. And here’s the thing: Denying a same-sex couple one’s services will close that door; only serving them will open it.

So let folks know that your belief in God means that you can’t agree that same-sex marriage is right; that is what religious liberty is all about. But use that precious liberty, and your even more precious freedom in Christ, to show people what kind of God you believe in: a God who values love and service above all else.

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