Keep Religious Beliefs Out of State Laws

tags: same-sex marriage, separation of church and state



Steve Hochstadt is a history professor at Illinois College.

Politics and religion make a dangerous brew. For centuries, political rulers and religious leaders created state-enforced religions, ranging from Aztec high priests to African tribal chiefs to European kings. The gradual shift toward democracy since the French and American revolutions at the end of the eighteenth century has been accompanied by the slow demise of state religions. More liberty has inevitably meant more freedom from states enforcing the beliefs of one religious denomination.

American revolutionaries led that change. Although most of them believed in a supreme being, they also believed that the state should not enforce any particular religious beliefs on Americans. Thus the First Amendment to our Constitution begins, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof ....”

But separating Christianity from the American state has been a constant struggle. The First Amendment restricted only the federal government until the Supreme Court decided in 1947 to also apply it to the states.

In that decision, Justice Hugo Black wrote, “Neither a state nor the Federal Government can set up a church. Neither can pass laws which aid one religion, aid all religions, or prefer one religion to another.” Liberals tend to interpret the establishment clause as creating a high barrier, a “wall of separation between Church and State” in Thomas Jefferson’s words. Conservatives have argued that the state can encourage general religious belief, such as by allowing prayer in schools, but they agree that the beliefs of a particular denomination must not be favored.

The danger of using the state to enforce narrow religious ideas was apparent last week in the rally against same-sex marriage in Springfield. The demonstration was conceived as a religious event, organized by the Illinois Family Institute, which calls itself a “ministry” that “promotes and defends Biblical truths.” The IFI’s website listed sixteen sites for participants to find busses to Springfield, including 11 churches and one religious school. More than half of the scheduled six hours were designated as prayer rally and prayer walk.

Opponents of same-sex marriage are no longer able to count on broad popular hatred of homosexuals. The traditional claims that gay people are sick and evil are no longer persuasive, as more Americans realize they know, work alongside of, and may even be related to homosexual men and women. That didn’t stop Jim Finnegan, a board member of IFI, from describing gays as “deviant” and “disease-filled.”

But such language will not win any votes. At the Springfield rally, and at other similar events across the country, opponents of gay marriage have been reduced to one argument. The organizers displayed a large cross in front of the Capitol with the words “God Abhors Civil Unions.” Bishop Larry Trotter of a Chicago Baptist church said that same-sex marriage is “against the will, plan and the word of God.”

Like all such claims to know what God likes and doesn’t like, they really mean “I Want to Enforce My Beliefs on You.” That’s exactly what Bishop Thomas Paprocki did within the entire Springfield diocese. He barred anyone wearing a symbol supportive of gay marriage from attending Catholic Mass. Paprocki said that anyone who prays for same-sex marriage would be asked to leave the Springfield Cathedral.

Monsignor Carl Kemme of Springfield called marriage “God’s design, not man’s.” But he’s wrong. In the U.S., marriage is a state institution. No religious intervention is necessary to get married and then to enjoy the significant benefits of being officially recognized by all public entities as a couple.

There is no agreement among religious Americans about what God thinks of civil unions or same-sex marriage. While some religious leaders proclaimed in Springfield that God stood behind their beliefs, others have proclaimed the same thing for their opposite beliefs. Many major Protestant denominations support same-sex marriage, including the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America, the largest Lutheran denomination in the U.S., as well as Unitarians, United Church of Christ, and the Quakers. Some denominations are divided about homosexuality and gay marriage, like the United Methodist Church. Although official Methodist doctrine does not allow same-sex marriage, retired Bishop Melvin Talbert officiated on Saturday at a gay wedding in Alabama.

Bishop Paprocki’s own spiritual leader, Pope Francis, appears to be moving the Catholic Church away from its harshly critical stance toward homosexuality. In an interview last month, the Pope said, “If a homosexual person is of good will and is in search of God, I am no one to judge....We cannot insist only on issues related to abortion, gay marriage and the use of contraceptive methods.... it is not necessary to talk about these issues all the time.” Most Catholics in America who attend weekly Mass support legalizing same-sex marriage, including about two-thirds of those aged 18-64.

The opponents of same-sex marriage wish to do what our Constitution forbids: have their minority religious beliefs be state law. Governments which enforce one interpretation of religious doctrine are inherently undemocratic. Those who advocate other beliefs are not only excluded from worship, but become enemies of the state. The law of the land must be for everyone.



comments powered by Disqus