Dr. Robert Jeffress, senior pastor at the First Baptist Church in Dallas, doesn’t mince words when discussing gay marriage. He’s listed as one of the key signers of a pledge signed by more than 50,000 people to defend marriage and “resist all government efforts to require them to accept gay marriage.”
“Whenever you counterfeit something, you cheapen the value of the real thing,” Jeffress said. “And I believe homosexual marriage is counterfeit marriage.”
A growing debate has unfolded among faith leaders about whether to perform and accept LGBT weddings. Many conservative religious leaders say they will continue to refuse to perform same-sex weddings because it differs from their interpretation of marriage as a holy union strictly between a man and a woman. But other progressive-leaning religious leaders say they will embrace gay and lesbian marriages to show support for meaningful relationships that bolster family life.
Jeffress and thousands of conservative religious leaders signed the “Defend Marriage” pledge that insists “civil government should defend marriage and not seek to undermine it.” It called for the government and Supreme Court to restrict marriage to just one man and one woman to “uphold God’s biblical plan.”
At the same time, a growing chorus of religious organizations have begun to allow same-sex marriages. Most recently, the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) announced it would sanction same-sex marriages, joining others like the Reform Jewish Movement, Conservative Jewish Movement, Unitarian Universalist Association of Churches, United Church of Christ, Episcopal Church and Society of Friends (Quakers). The Roman Catholic Church, which does not allow for gay marriages, has also taken an increasingly gentler tone on gay marriage under Pope Francis, who has called on church members to embrace LGBT Catholics.
The Supreme Court ruled Friday in favor of allowing same-sex marriages. Gay weddings were already legal in 36 states and Washington, and 57 percent of Americans now favor allowing gay and lesbian couples to marry. Roughly 39 percent oppose same-sex marriage, according to a Pew poll released in early June.
And it’s not just secular Americans who have embraced LGBT rights. Forty-seven percent of religiously affiliated Americans favor allowing same-sex marriage, compared to 45 percent who oppose. That’s a significant rise. Less than one-third of religiously affiliated people supported allowing same-sex couples to marry in 2003.
"No Appeal To That Verdict"
Despite a shifting public view, religious leaders like Jeffress insisted that their biblical definition of marriage -- and not homophobia -- cannot allow for same-sex marriages.
“I would say to other faith leaders that our beliefs cannot be shaped by polls opinions or public consensus,” Jeffress said. “The judge of all the universe has already decreed that marriage is between a man and a woman, and there is no appeal to that verdict.”
Such leaders said their churches and congregants would not bend. Matthew C. Harrison, president of the the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod -- which reports more than 2.3 million baptized members -- also signed the pledge against gay marriage.
"We believe that God has instituted the divine gift of marriage to be between one man and one woman,” Harrison said in a statement via email. “This understanding of marriage has existed within the cultures of the world from the beginning of time down to our present, confused times. Our churches therefore do not accommodate or endorse same-sex marriage.”
Some also argue it’s in the country’s civil interest to keep what they define as the traditional form of marriage. Russell Moore, president of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, the public policy arm of the nation’s largest Protestant denomination, raised concerns about children having same-sex parents, a notion Supreme Court justices have dismissed in the past because child development research has found no detrimental health consequences associated with such households.
“This is a civil issue that has implications for the common good,” Moore said. “We believe that every child deserves a mother and a father.”
Some religious leaders expressed concerns that churches, religious universities and religious-minded individuals would be subject to lawsuits because they would not be open to providing services to gay and lesbian people. But Moore was adamant churches should not budge.
“Churches of Christian conviction should not be performing same-sex marriages,” Moore said. “I don’t think there’s a church with true Christian conviction considering such a thing.”
"A Moral Obligation"
But faith leaders who back same-sex marriage have formed a different reading on the morality surrounding gay and lesbian marriages. Brad Braxton, senior pastor at the Open Church in Baltimore, speaks with the precise delivery of a preacher and stands definitively in his backing of same-sex marriage. He’s performed full religious ceremonies for same-sex marriages and welcomes anyone to the altar in his church.
“I feel that I have a moral obligation to advocate for marriage equality,” Braxton said. “Marriage can be a moral good. … Justice involves making all of those moral goods, not just some of them, available.”
Denise L. Eger is the founding rabbi at Congregation Kol Ami in West Hollywood, California; a same-sex rights activist; and the first openly gay president of Central Conference of American Rabbis, the oldest and largest rabbinic organization in America. She officiated the first legal same-sex wedding in California about seven years ago.
“There are too many people, too many faith leaders who use the Bible to beat up others,” she said. “We believe that God created all people in God’s image and that includes LGBTQ people.”
While other religious leaders argue that church officials have a place in the debate against allowing same-sex marriage, Eger said that “as long as marriage is a civil right … it is not the business of churches or synagogues” to insert themselves.
“Their boldface lies that they somehow will have to officiate marriages that they do not approve of, that’s just a lie,” Eger said. “The government cannot tell a church who they must marry.”
The idea that a church should not interfere with the lives of LGBT people is a sticking point for many. Sharon Kleinbaum is the senior rabbi at Congregation Beit Simchat Torah in New York and has been a same-sex marriage rights advocate for more than 20 years.
“I believe that everybody is entitled to their own religious beliefs. I don’t believe they have the right to codify their anti-gay beliefs into law,” Kleinbaum said. She said faith leaders against same-sex marriages weren’t taking a full view of the Bible but were “picking and choosing because of their political perspective right now,” she said.
Embracing same-sex marriages can also mean adding new people to the flock. “We may actually discover sisters and brothers we never knew we had,” Braxton said. “And that, for me, is family values.”