In the wake of the Supreme Court’s marriage ruling, some government officials and religious leaders who oppose the decision have been calling for citizens and congregants to actively protest the advent of marriage equality. Some are using the language of conscientious objection and civil disobedience.
Is it proper to use such descriptions? Is preventing a marriage for a gay or lesbian couple justified by moral principles? Should government officials who, because of religious principles, disagree with the Court’s decision on marriage, be allowed not to issue licenses or perform ceremonies?
Questions like these are going to be debated hotly in the coming months, The Catholic community will not be exempt from such discussions either. At least two Catholic bishops have already used such language in their reaction statements to the court’s decisions. Yet, a religious ethics scholar has also recently showed why the use of “conscientious objection” and “civil disobedience” are totally incorrect for the question of marriage equality.
First, let’s look at what the two bishops have said. Bishop Joseph Strickland, Diocese of Tyler, Texas, in a June 26th statement said the Court’s decision was
“unjust and immoral, and it is our duty to clearly and emphatically oppose it.”
Later in the statement, Strickland goes on to say:
“We know that unjust laws and other measures contrary to the moral order are not binding in conscience, thus we must now exercise our right to conscientious objection against this interpretation of our law. . . “
The Providence Journal reported on Rhode Island’s Bishop Thomas Tobin, who, on July 1st, posted an encouraging statement on Facebook for a Texas court clerk who, at first, refused to issue marriage licenses to lesbian and gay couples. (She has since relented.) Tobin’s statement said, in part:
“We need many more conscientious objectors – public officials, private businesses, advertisers, religious leaders, and family members, people of courage who will abide by their conscience, protect their religious rights, and not support or enable the furtherance of this moral aberration – so called, ‘same-sex marriage.’ “
But a Christian ethicist has recently refuted such dramatic calls to civil disobedience and conscientious objection in the face of marriage equality by noting that the response does not fit the situation. Rev. Dr. David Gushee, Distinguished University Professor of Christian Ethics and Director of the Center for Theology and Public Life at Mercer University, Georgia, penned an an essay for Religion News Service entitled “Why civil disobedience is irrelevant to gay marriage.”
Here’s the gist of Gushee’s analysis of civil disobedience:
Here’s a good definition: If a government mandates what religious people believe God forbids, or forbids what religious people believe God mandates, civil disobedience may be required. . . .
The federal government has not mandated that houses of worship or clergy perform gay marriages. Nor has it forbidden congregations or clergy from performing such nuptials. Government has permitted gay marriages — and thus the solemnization of these marriages by whoever is authorized to offer it.
Therefore, those who wish to perform gay weddings are free to do so, and those who do not wish to perform them are free to decline. There are no legitimate grounds for civil disobedience here.
Gushee also takes on the more particular case of government officials who oppose marriage equality on religious grounds:
“In my view, regardless of whether state officials like a particular law, they are required to submit to it in the performance of their duties — or should resign from office.
“Government clerks are not religious officials. Nor are they simply individual citizens who might find a government’s law to be a violation of conscience. They are on the state payroll. Refusal to adhere to or enforce the law on the part of a government official is dereliction of duty, not civil disobedience.”
And he doesn’t shy away from perhaps the thorniest church/state question regarding marriage equality: will the government require religious institutions to adopt policies which treat all married couples–gay, lesbian, heterosexual–equally? Gushee does not mince words in his answer:
“It seems very unlikely that government would simply mandate that religious organizations change such policies. It might, however, withdraw tax-exempt status, not from congregations, but from religious organizations.
“Or it might ban federal funds, such as government social-service contracts, research grants or student loans, from going to such organizations. This is not the same thing as simply banning such organizations from adhering to their preferred policies, but for many organizations it remains a nightmare scenario.”
There will be consequences for religious institutions if they do not honor the marriage laws, but they will not be anywhere near the imagined threat that some leaders are describing. Instead, the consequences will be more practical. Gushee writes:
“. . . [N]o organizational leader will be arrested or imprisoned if these organizations stick to their policies, and if government withdraws financial assistance (by no means a certainty).
“No organization will be raided and padlocked. No civil disobedience strategy will be relevant.
“Instead, such organizations essentially will be shut out from using government dollars, with predictably scary effects on their bottom lines and reputations.”
But losing government money is not their only option. Gushee suggests other alternatives:
“They could change the relevant policies, perhaps under protest, while claiming no change in their values. They could do this because they decide that their organizational mission is too important to let it wither because of its LGBT policies.
“Or, of course, they could take this as an opportunity to dig deeper and actually reconsider their beliefs about LGBT people and their relationships, as some of us have already done.”
Civil disobedience and conscientious objection give a moral gravity to a religious person’s objections to marriage equality law. But as strategies to oppose them, they are not practical or appropriate.
As I’ve argued before here on Bondings 2.0, people with religious objections to civil laws have several options to respond in religious ways. Sacrificing something, like government grants, may be involved, and sacrifice is a treasured religious response. Peace activists have endured jail and other sacrifices for resisting war taxes. Why aren’t religious opponents against marriage equality advocating such sacrifices instead of arguing for discrimination?
–Francis DeBernardo, New Ways Ministry