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After high court rulings, what will religious conservatives do?

Rep. Earl Blumenauer, D-Oregon, celebrates Supreme Court decisions on same-sex marriage on Wednesday (June 26). RNS photo by Adelle M. Banks

(RNS) The twin Supreme Court rulings on Wednesday (June 26) that further opened the door for gay marriage in the U.S. were not entirely unexpected, and the condemnations from religious conservatives angry at the verdicts were certainly no surprise either.

Rep. Earl Blumenauer, D-Oregon, celebrates Supreme Court decisions on same-sex marriage on Wednesday (June 26). RNS photo by Adelle M. Banks

Rep. Earl Blumenauer, D-Oregon, celebrates Supreme Court decisions on same-sex marriage on Wednesday (June 26). RNS photo by Adelle M. Banks

So the real question is what gay marriage opponents will do now.  

Here are four possible scenarios that took shape in the wake of Wednesday’s developments:

It’s religious freedom, not sex

Even before Wednesday’s rulings many religious groups who oppose gay marriage – and other policies, such as the Obama administration’s decision to mandate free contraception insurance – had been reframing the argument as a matter of religious freedom.

That in fact is the focus of the Catholic bishops’ current “Fortnight for Freedom” campaign, which the hierarchy deployed to argue that gay marriage and the birth control policy would force churches to comply with laws that violate their teachings, and their conscience.

If believers become martyrs to gay marriage – if Christian florists and bakers who refuse to supply bouquets and wedding cakes for gay couples are subject to lawsuits or sanctions, for example – then public opinion could turn against gay rights.

In his statement welcoming the high court rulings, President Obama was careful to try to ease those fears, stressing that even as gay rights expand “maintaining our nation’s commitment to religious freedom is also vital.”

“How religious institutions define and consecrate marriage has always been up to those institutions,” he said. “Nothing about this decision – which applies only to civil marriages – changes that.”

The fate of this scenario may depend on what kind of religious exemptions, if any, states and cities include in their gay rights legislation.

Live the Gospel, change the culture

One of the most devastating lines of attack against gay marriage foes is that they are hypocrites who castigate gays and lesbians even as they divorce and remarry and commit adultery and cohabitate and have children out of wedlock.

Guilty as charged, say some Christian leaders, who argue that this week’s rulings should be the spur to Christians to confess their sins and put their own house in order so that they can show Americans that believers actually practice what they preach.

“That means that we must repent of our pathetic marriage cultures within the church,” said Russell Moore, president of the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, the public policy wing of the Southern Baptist Convention. “This means we have the opportunity, by God’s grace, to take marriage as seriously as the gospel does, in a way that prompts the culture around us to ask why.”

As part of that conversion, Moore said Christians also need to stop demonizing gays and lesbians. “The gay and lesbian people in your community aren’t part of some global ‘Gay Agenda’ conspiracy. They aren’t super-villains in some cartoon. They are, like all of us, seeking a way that seems right to them.”

Or, as Denver Seminary’s Elodie Ballantine Emig wrote in Christianity Today, “we are all sinners in need of a savior. We are on a level playing field with gays and lesbians who, in my experience, can detect condescension and hypocrisy a mile away.”

This argument says that by living out their teachings without acting self-righteous, Christians stand a better chance of actually changing the culture rather than simply complaining about it. Favorable laws and court rulings will follow, rather than the other way around.

Turn gay marriage into Roe v. Wade

Ironically, a sweeping Supreme Court decision in favor of gay rights could be the best thing to happen to gay marriage opponents.

The precedent here is the 1973 high court ruling legalizing abortion, Roe v. Wade. That decision was supposed to be the end of the national debate over abortion, but instead it was only the beginning. Some say that when the justices – led by Anthony Kennedy’s swing vote – overturned the federal Defense of Marriage Act this week they set up a similar scenario:

“Kennedy’s decision is the Roe v. Wade of this generation, not this generation’s Brown v. the Board of Education,” said Maggie Gallagher of the American Principles Project, referring to the landmark decision that struck down racial segregation in schools.

“Just as forty years after Roe v. Wade abortion opponents continue to fight for the pro-life agenda, pro traditional marriage supporters will fight on as well,” agreed Rick McDaniel, senior pastor at the Richmond Community Church in Virginia.

Of course, Roe has not been overturned, and it looks likely to remain the law of the land. But abortion opponents can point to growing restrictions on abortion rights at the state level – and they can hope that gay rights will eventually face the same pushback.

It’s not so bad, so full speed ahead!

Another tack is to argue that Wednesday’s dual rulings were not really a defeat for gay marriage foes and that no one should run up the white flag of surrender.

“(W)hile today’s decisions were very disappointing, they do not represent a watershed moment for marriage as many are suggesting,” Brian Burch of wrote in a fundraising plea to supporters. “Same-sex marriage advocates did not get what they wanted, namely a ‘Roe v. Wade’ for same-sex marriage.”

“We have a clear path forward to protect marriage and respond to these rulings, in Congress and in the states, and in the hearts and minds of our fellow citizens,” Burch wrote. “The future of marriage remains a dispute open to ‘We the People’.”

The thinking here is that gay marriage opponents should look on the bright side.

Lobbyists like Brian Brown, head of National Organization for Marriage, and Bill Donohue of the Catholic League even doubled-down in this high stakes game and said conservatives should now push for a constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage.

Still, all of those scenarios may well be too rosy for reality. If religious conservatives can’t figure out which tack to take, they may wind up doing their cause as much harm as any court ruling or state law.


About the author

David Gibson

David Gibson is a national reporter for RNS and an award-winning religion journalist, author and filmmaker. He has written several books on Catholic topics. His latest book is on biblical artifacts: "Finding Jesus: Faith. Fact. Forgery," which was also the basis of a popular CNN series.


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  • If churches are committed to changing the law in areas that do not have a direct impact on them, then they should lose their tax-exempt status. If we are going to maintain a separation of church and state, then it must be delineated.

    This constant religious whine: “You can’t do that, because it offends my religious sensibilities” is nonsense. Religious have a right to religious freedom, but not a right to my freedom as outlined by the state. There are 60 million people at least that want nothing to do with these crazy evangelical fundamentalist Christians.

    The biggest criminals in the group are the Catholic pedophiles. They don’t get married, they sexually abuse children. What possibly gives them a right to talk at all?

    Keep the hypocrites locked up and quiet until they have their house in order. Which is basically forever.

  • What most people don’t (yet) realize is that the decisions we make as a nation will affect us all. You’ll see what I mean, very soon.

  • “…conservatives should now push for a constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage.”

    Good luck with that…..even if the amendment got through the initial process…it would have to be ratified by 38 states…and gay marriage is already legal in 13

  • I think you left out the most obvious choice — do nothing. Just as Roe v. Wade did not and never will compel anyone to have and abortion, yesterday’s Supreme Court decision, along with the 13 states that recognize same sex marriage, do not not compel anyone to marry a person of the same sex. Offering contraceptive insurance coverage does not compel anyone to take contraceptives either.

    True religious freedom entails not forcing your personal religious beliefs on others through civil laws but having the freedom to hold your own beliefs through personal choice. Everyone is still free to believe that abortion, contraception, and same sex marriage are wrong if they so choose; everyone else are now free to believe otherwise. No one is prevented from teaching and preaching their personal beliefs.

    Why do religious conservatives have so little trust and faith in their own beliefs and followers? If you teach these things are wrong why not trust your followers to abstain from abortion, contraception, and same sex marriage and leave it at that? Why the need to impose that belief on the millions of Americans who are not members of your faith tradition nor followers of your religion? This is about control and power, not religious freedom.

    The United States of America is not a theocracy and there is no official state religion. Why are religious conservatives so afraid that their beliefs will not be followed to the extent that they have to have enforcement by law rather than faith? That speaks to me of hypocrisy and lack of trust in their own belief system.

  • It’s time to face the possibility that this corrupt nation — including its Christians and other religionists — will soon be running head-on into divine judgment. Abe Lincoln and Ben Franklin tried to warn us about “forgetting God”, but let’s face it: America has forgotten God.

    You can blame whoever you want to, or spin whatever you want to, but it’s totally clear this week that America has forgotten God and is now a full candidate for divine disaster such as what Sodom, Gomorrah, and Canaan experienced.

  • Yeah. Like that time we took the confederacy back into the union. Y’all are STILL holding us back a century and a half later. I’d love to have two different nations, but, short of that, leave it to the states.

  • You religious fundamentalist are idiots telling everyone to fear god. God is a man made concept to control you.

  • One of the main objections that I hear regarding same-sex marriage has to do with the fear that churches will be forced to perform the ceremony for same-sex couples. I have nearly lost my voice informing people that there are two parts to a marriage performed in a church: The civil part, and the blessing. Churches can deny and do deny couples they feel do not meet their requirements for marriage – such as people who have been divorced.
    After sixty years of experience with divorce, no churches are threatened with being forced to perform marriages for people who have been divorced. It is a very uninformed perspective to claim that same-sex marriages will be forced upon churches — but there are many isolated areas, and people who cling to their uninformed state who persist in voicing nonsense. It is frightening when it is the elected leaders who continue to voice this nonsense to churn up anxiety and anger among their constituents. But, hey, that is what passes for politics these days.

  • They’ll predict the downfall of American society … and then do everything in their power to make it a self-fulfilling prophesy.

  • ethana2 has the right idea. You wanted your own country down there? Have it. Get lost. We don’t need you. The Northeastern states could do very well on their own. Freed from the necessity of dragging yahoos into the late nineteenth century we could be a prosperous, progressive, immigration-friendly, gay-friendly society.

  • Excellent point of view. I think likewise. However, when we are talking about lives (and in the case of an abortion there is a life or two lives involved), we have a legal system which determines when it is a crime and when it is not a crime and laws are approved according to the beliefs of our representatives in Congress. There is no room for freedom to comply with the law or not.