What Churches and Clergy Should Note from the Same-Sex Marriage Ruling
The Supreme Court’s 5-4 decision, and what it means for religious liberty.
What Churches and Clergy Should Note from the Same-Sex Marriage Ruling

The Supreme Court of the United States ruled this morning that marriage between same-sex couples is a constitutional right, effectively legalizing same-sex marriage across the United States.

Christianity Today notes that the Supreme Court case, Obergefell v. Hodges, sought to answer two questions, with the Court ultimately ruling yes to both in its 5-4 decision:

  1. Does the Fourteenth Amendment require a state to license a marriage between two people of the same sex?
  2. Does the Fourteenth Amendment require a state to recognize a marriage between two people of the same sex when their marriage was lawfully licensed and performed out-of-state?

Though the Court responded in the affirmative to both questions, what remains in question are the exact legal ramifications for ministers and religious institutions who oppose same-sex marriage.

Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote the Court’s majority opinion and had this to say about religious beliefs in the context of opposition to same-sex marriage:

Finally, it must be emphasized that religions, and those who adhere to religious doctrines, may continue to advocate with utmost, sincere conviction that, by divine precepts, same-sex marriage should not be condoned. The First Amendment ensures that religious organizations and persons are given proper protection as they seek to teach the principles that are so fulfilling and so central to their lives and faiths, and to their own deep aspirations to continue the family structure they have long revered. The same is true of those who oppose same-sex marriage for other reasons.

Kennedy noted that although individuals and institutions—including ministers and churches—are given religious (and secular) freedom to oppose same-sex marriage, civil government cannot deny individuals the right to a same-sex marriage, saying, “The Constitution, however, does not permit the State to bar same-sex couples from marriage on the same terms as accorded to couples of the opposite sex.”

The dissenting opinions in today’s decision seem to suggest the majority opinion does not go far enough with respect to protecting religious liberty, including any exemption for clergy who do not wish to officiate a same-sex wedding ceremony. For instance, in Chief Justice Roberts’ dissent he writes, “Respect for sincere religious conviction has led voters and legislators in every State that has adopted same-sex marriage democratically to include accommodations for religious practice. The majority’s decision imposing same-sex marriage cannot, of course, create any such accommodations. The majority graciously suggests that religious believers may continue to ‘advocate’ and ‘teach’ their views of marriage. The First Amendment guarantees, however, the freedom to ‘exercise’ religion. Ominously, that is not a word the majority uses.”

Adds Justice Clarence Thomas in a separate dissent:

In our society, marriage is not simply a governmental institution; it is a religious institution as well. … Today’s decision might change the former, but it cannot change the latter. It appears all but inevitable that the two will come into conflict, particularly as individuals and churches are confronted with demands to participate in and endorse civil marriages between same-sex couples. The majority appears unmoved by that inevitability. It makes only a weak gesture toward religious liberty in a single paragraph … And even that gesture indicates a misunderstanding of religious liberty in our Nation’s tradition. Religious liberty is about more than just the protection for “religious organizations and persons . . . as they seek to teach the principles that are so fulfilling and so central to their lives and faiths.” Ibid. Religious liberty is about freedom of action in matters of religion generally, and the scope of that liberty is directly correlated to the civil restraints placed upon religious practice.

Today’s decision also was not expected to address the matter of church facility use for same-sex wedding ceremonies. As Richard Hammar has previously noted, it is unclear how the courts will view such a question in the future, based on any future litigation. Church leaders, however, should review now how their facilities are made available to the public for wedding ceremonies, Hammar has noted.

ManagingYourChurch.com continues to interview sources regarding the decision, and will continue to update this report.

In the meantime, more coverage of the ruling by our ministry includes the following:

  • Leadership Journal covers the pastoral response to same-sex marriage in light of Friday’s ruling.
  • Over on Christianity Today’s The Exchange blog, Ed Stetzer emphasizes the church, now more than ever, must remain committed to mission.
  • A Christian psychologist explores the Christian response to Friday’s decision and same-sex marriage.

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This content is designed to provide accurate and authoritative information in regard to the subject matter covered. It is published with the understanding that the publisher is not engaged in rendering legal, accounting, or other professional service. If legal advice or other expert assistance is required, the services of a competent professional person should be sought. "From a Declaration of Principles jointly adopted by a Committee of the American Bar Association and a Committee of Publishers and Associations."

Due to the nature of the U.S. legal system, laws and regulations constantly change. The editors encourage readers to carefully search the site for all content related to the topic of interest and consult qualified local counsel to verify the status of specific statutes, laws, regulations, and precedential court holdings.

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