This month the Supreme Court will make a decision about the legality of same-sex marriage. This decision will either affirm the age-old understanding of marriage between a man and a woman, as revealed in Scripture and affirmed in tradition, or redefine marriage based on the social constructs of the contemporary day.
On the one hand, since man and woman are God-ordained creations in the image of God, and since marriage is a God-ordained institution, we are not at liberty to redefine either. On the other hand, even if we do not agree with this redefinition, it carries with it significant implications for life and ministry in such a setting.
Recently Richard Hammar, senior editor of Church Law & Tax Report, was interviewed about the upcoming Supreme Court decision and what pastors, leaders and churches ought to know. I have included excerpts of Hammer’s response in the last two questions.
To date, 36 states and the District of Columbia have recognized the legal rights of same-sex couples to marry. If the Supreme Court does the same in June, as many expect it will, what will change?
Should the Supreme Court decide there is a constitutionally protected right for same-sex couples to marry, it will affirm the laws and court decisions of states that already recognize such a right and it will overturn the laws of the remaining states that define marriage as a union between a man and woman only.
You have followed this issue closely starting back in 2008, and again in 2013 after the Supreme Court addressed three cases related to marriage and same-sex couples. What have you learned?
Most state laws and court rulings sanctioning same-sex marriage contain a very specific religious exemption for clergy. The exemptions say any clergy who oppose same-sex marriage based on their sincerely held religious beliefs may choose not to officiate same-sex wedding ceremonies.
Do you expect the Supreme Court to include a similar exemption with its ruling next month, should it recognize a constitutional right for same-sex couples to marry?
Yes. And others do, too. Douglas Laycock, one of the country’s premier constitutional scholars, supports same-sex marriage rights, but in a brief submitted to the Supreme Court advocating the rights of same-sex couples to marry, he also implored the Court to provide a definitive clergy exemption.
Beyond clergy, what will the Supreme Court ruling mean for churches that oppose same-sex marriage? Will they be required to host same-sex wedding ceremonies?
That’s not a question currently before the Court. The case before it only addresses the legal right of same-sex couples to marry.
Such uncertainty has made some church leaders who oppose same-sex marriage nervous. Should churches that allow their buildings to be used by outside individuals for weddings reconsider that practice?
This is, no doubt, a difficult matter for churches to decide, especially among those that wish to provide their buildings as a service to their local communities in exchange for minimal fees to cover costs associated with the use of the buildings. . . The answer is complicated by two factors, which I’ll quote here: First, the courts have yet to address the issue, and so all we can do is speculate. Second, any answer will depend on the wording, application, and exemptions of a veritable patchwork quilt of thousands of local, state, and federal laws forbidding discrimination by places of “public accommodation.” This makes it impossible to generalize.
The Washington Post recently reported on concerns regarding the tax-exempt status of churches, church-run schools, and religiously affiliated colleges and universities that oppose same-sex marriages. This was based on a specific exchange from the oral arguments before the Supreme Court in April, and it has further raised concerns among many church leaders. We’re often asked whether churches should amend their church bylaws—as a measure of protection—to state they hold a traditional, orthodox view of marriage as a union between a man and a woman only. Would a change like this help a church?
Let me make a couple of comments in response to this question. First, there certainly is no downside to including such a provision in a church’s governing documents, but I would point out that many of the church governing documents I have reviewed already contain a strong doctrinal statement that may make such an additional provision redundant. Second, such a statement in a church’s bylaws may not accomplish the desired protection. . . . The bottom line is that including a statement in a church’s bylaws defining marriage may be of some help should the church’s tax exemptions be challenged, or if the church is sued for violating a public accommodations law due to its refusal to host same-sex marriages, but it is no guaranty of protection.