Disciples News Service

Thoughts on Religious Freedom and the Supreme Court Decision on Marriage Equality

by the Rev. Dr. Sharon E. Watkins, general minister and president

Two different discussions are stirred by the June 2015 Supreme Court decision on marriage equality. One relates to social, biblical and theological understandings of marriage. The other is about religious freedom and the separation of church and state.

The Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) places a high value on both religious freedom and individual interpretation of scripture. We expect followers of Christ to act according to their beliefs. As a Church, therefore, we intentionally do not create church-wide policies on these matters for congregations or ministers. Our general assembly may offer counsel but not policy.

Consistent with our value for religious freedom, Disciples have historically insisted that the basic civil and human rights of all people be respected legally – even while sometimes still debating related issues in the church.  Our General Assembly has affirmed the civil rights of women, persons of color, persons of different religions and of all persons regardless of sexual orientation or gender identity.

In the church, marriage is about covenant, love and God-centered relationships. So what does the Supreme Court decision means for the church? Ministers whose consciences call for them to conduct weddings for couples regardless of sexual orientation and gender identity may now do so legally in every state. Ministers whose consciences call for them to refuse to conduct weddings for some couples may still refuse in every state. Congregations have the same freedom when considering policy on the use of their buildings. The First Amendment protects our freedom to exercise theological and pastoral judgment.

Some are insisting that the ruling will force ministers and congregations to perform same sex weddings. Yet Disciples ministers perform weddings for couples of mixed faith when other clergy refuse the wedding on religious grounds. Disciples ministers perform second marriages, when others will decline to officiate following divorce. Disciples ministers perform covenant ceremonies for older persons, who for economic reasons cannot marry. The freedom to perform or not perform those and other weddings continues on First Amendment grounds. Our Constitution gives religious groups wide freedom to practice their faith in church settings without government interference even while protecting the civil rights of all.

Thoughtful Disciples come to different conclusions about marriage equality. For many, it is a positive step biblically and constitutionally. It affirms life-long, monogamous relationships, celebrates loving couples and stable families, gives legal support for children and spouses. For others, the Court’s decision is contrary to biblical and traditional understandings of marriage.

Disciples practice is to affirm the responsibility of all to interpret Scripture and to share their understandings within the community of faith. The bonds of love call us to speak the truth as we understand it, to hold onto each other, to pray with each other, to engage with each other in acts of love and mercy. The world needs an example of freedom of interpretation and thought, of unity in diversity, and of sharing a common table though we disagree on important issues. My prayer is Disciples will be that witness.