For years now, Religious Right leaders have been whipping up hysteria by claiming that, should marriage equality become the law of the land, conservative churches will be forced to host same-sex marriage ceremonies.
As arguments go, this one is just not very good. Several states have had marriage equality for years, yet no member of the clergy has been compelled to officiate at a same-sex wedding. As far as I know, no lawsuits like this have even been filed.
If one were filed, it would quickly die in court. The First Amendment guarantees to houses of worship an absolute right to decide for themselves who can attend their services and who qualifies for their sacraments.
Nevertheless, this scare-tactic argument keeps popping up. Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia cited it during oral arguments in the marriage equality case April 28. Justice Elena Kagan quickly shut Scalia down by pointing out that some Orthodox rabbis will not marry a couple unless both parties are Jewish – and they’ve never been jailed or fined for that.
Thankfully, some conservative leaders are honest enough to concede that this just isn’t a realistic threat. Last week, Albert Mohler, president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, admitted as much.
Mohler was asked about the matter during the Southern Baptist Convention’s annual meeting in Columbus. Here is what he said:
“Look, I really don’t fear – it’s really important that you and the other presidents and every Southern Baptist pastor, every Gospel pastor, preacher needs to say ‘I’m not going to perform a same-sex wedding.’ But let’s be honest: There’s not really a danger that the sheriff’s gonna show up and say, ‘You have to do this.’ So far as I know, no pastor has been sued successfully for refusing to marry someone on other grounds; that’s not the real danger.”
Mohler went on to say that there will probably be a social price to pay. He told the crowd, “The real danger is we’re going to pay an enormous social, cultural price for not doing a same-sex ceremony….We’re going to be considered to be morally deficient. Let’s admit it: We’re much more accustomed to being accused of being morally superior. They’ve said we’ve been ‘stand-offish,’ meaning better than them. Now a large part of this culture thinks we are morally deficient. And we’re going to find that’s a very different way to do ministry.”
Bingo. The culture is shifting on this issue. In the years to come, churches that hold views that are considered backward and bigoted may find that fewer and fewer people are interested in attending their services. But that won’t come about because of a government fiat; it will occur due to a natural cultural evolution.
At the end of the day, I think that’s what’s really bothering some of the folks on the Religious Right: They are reluctant to admit it publicly, but deep down they know they are on the losing side of this issue. They know they’re going to be the odd ones out. They know the culture is turning against them.
I’m sure that’s a bitter pill. Of course, they don’t have to swallow it; they could change their views and stop spreading anti-LGBT messages. They could become welcoming and inclusive.
Instead, some on the Religious Right have decided to spread wild tales of persecution and imprisonment that will never come to pass. It’s good to know that at least one top official of a conservative denomination understands why all of that is just so much scare talk.