As Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., once said, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” That vision of history’s progression has been well illustrated by the past year’s landslide of advances for marriage equality. And as we move closer to a more just society, the nature of the opposition is revealed in the nature of the backlash.
The Christian Right has been operating on multiple fronts to stop—or at least limit—the scope of the advance of marriage equality, including seeking to enable business owners, civil workers, and elected officials to openly discriminate against LGBTQ couples by co-opting the progressive principle of religious liberty. The most dramatic example of this is in Mississippi, where recently passed Religious Freedom Restoration Act authorizes just such discrimination by businesses—and is being challenged in federal court.
As the case proceeds, we may hear more about one of the most remarkable marriage equality victories in the landslide of federal court victories this year. General Synod of the United Church of Christ v. Cooper.
The United Church of Christ, whose origins go back to Plymouth Rock, won a stunning victory for both marriage equality and religious liberty when they overturned North Carolina’s ban on same-sex marriage. The federal judge ruled (PDF) that the state could not criminalize the role of clergy in solemnizing the same-sex unions of members of their congregations. “It is clear,” U.S. District Court Judge Max Cogburn declared, “ … that North Carolina laws … threatening to penalize those who would solemnize such marriages, are unconstitutional.”
Judge Cogburn’s ruling underscores that religious liberty is only possible in the context of religious pluralism—in which all religious and non-religious points of view have equal standing under the law. It also helps to clarify that when Christian Right leaders talk about religious liberty—they often really mean theocratic religious supremacism.
Tony Perkins, president of the Family Research Council, took to the airwaves after the filing of UCC’s suit to claim that the church is not really Christian, and that those who support gay rights don’t have the same rights as conservative Christians—because ‘true religious freedom’ only applies to ‘orthodox religious viewpoints.’”
Perkins’ blunt statements are a sobering reminder that theocratic factions of the U.S. Right have long sought to regain the religious and political hegemony they lost when the Constitution was ratified in the 18th century. The arc of the moral universe is not bending their way, and demagogues like Perkins are abusing the idea of religious liberty to beat down people with whom they religiously and politically disagree.
Let’s take a moment, then, to hear what advocates for religious liberty and pluralism actually sound like.
“We didn’t bring this lawsuit to make others conform to our beliefs, but to vindicate the right of all faiths to freely exercise their religious practices,” said Donald C. Clark Jr., general counsel of the United Church of Christ.
“The historic wins for marriage equality and our willingness to seek justice through the courts,” said president Michael D. Castle of the Alliance of Baptists, “not only places us as a leading witness for justice, but also allows the Alliance of Baptists to offer a powerful and prophetic witness to a Christian faith where love always trumps fear, and where the welcome of Jesus always trumps hate and archaic religious dogma.”
The Alliance of Baptists—progressives who fled the fundamentalist takeover of the Southern Baptist Convention in the ‘80s— and the Central Conference of American Rabbis signed onto the UCC suit as co-plaintiffs, along with a number of individual clergy from a variety of religious traditions.
“Depriving rabbis of the freedom to conduct same-sex marriage ceremonies in North Carolina,” Rabbi Steven Fox, Chief Executive of the Conference stated, “stigmatizes our religious beliefs and relegates many of our congregants and community members to second-class status.”
“There is no more central tenet to our faith,” added Fox and several other Reform rabbis in the wake of the Windsor decision of the Supreme Court last year, “than the notion that all human beings are created in the image of the Divine, and, as such, entitled to equal treatment and equal opportunity… Thanks to the Court’s decision, the federal government will now recognize these marriages as well, while still respecting the rights and views of those faith traditions that choose not to sanctify such marriages.”
No one speaks for all of Christianity, let alone all people of faith. But there are certainly authentic spokespeople for religious liberty. Let’s not allow the Christian Right to drown them out or shout them down.