Push Within Religions for Gay Marriage Gets Little Attention

From the moment the Supreme Court ruled last month in favor of a constitutional right to same-sex marriage, opponents placed the decision in a very specific analytical frame. Here, they contended, was an egregious example of secular culture triumphing over religious values and religious freedom.

“Profoundly immoral and unjust,” the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops said in a statement. The Orthodox Union, the national association of Orthodox Jewish congregations, declared its “emphatic” and “unalterable” religious opposition to same-sex marriage. The prominent evangelist Franklin Graham reiterated that God had created marriage between man and woman and said, “His decisions are not subject to review or revision by any man-made court.”

In the dissenting opinions in the 5-to-4 vote, justices seemed to anticipate the battles to come over adherence to the law by individuals and institutions that doctrinally oppose same-sex marriage. Justice Clarence Thomas noted the “potentially ruinous consequences for religious liberty,” while Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. wrote, “Unfortunately, people of faith can take no comfort in the treatment they receive from the majority today.”

Yet the discussion of secularism versus religion is incomplete. It ignores or elides the growing number of theologians and religious scholars in a range of faiths who, over a half-century, have been assembling and espousing scriptural arguments in favor of gay rights and ultimately marriage equality. The debate about same-sex marriage that has gotten too little attention is the intrareligious one.

In that regard, one of the most significant amicus briefs in the Supreme Court case was filed in support of marriage equality on behalf of nearly 2,000 clergy members, theological seminaries and denominational officials, including Episcopalian, Reform and Conservative Jewish, American Baptist, Buddhist and Unitarian Universalist. “Faiths embracing same-sex couples,” the brief pointedly stated, “participate in the mainstream of American observance.”

And for religious intellectuals who have advocated same-sex marriage, Justice Anthony M. Kennedy’s repeated invocation of the word “dignity” in his majority opinion seemed to be a very deliberate reference to religious teaching.

“Dignity, the high value of each individual person, their immeasurable value, their sacred value, is in its roots a Christian value,” said the Rev. David P. Gushee, a professor of Christian ethics at Mercer University in Macon, Ga. “Dignity language is a widely used cognate for the idea that every person is made in God’s image and is sacred for that reason. So what I think Judge Kennedy did was reach to one of the core concepts of our civilization.”

Rabbi Margaret Moers Wenig, an instructor in liturgy and homiletics at Hebrew Union College in New York, has been making the Judaic case for marriage equality since the 1990s. Like Dr. Gushee, who is an evangelical Christian, she considered it vital that same-sex marriage be viewed not only as a civil right but also as one consistent with religious belief.

“Religious arguments in support of or against marriage equality matter to those for whom religious language is the language we use to examine, articulate and pass on our values,” she said. “These arguments matter to those for whom religious traditions, laws and beliefs guide or govern every aspect of life. Religious arguments in support of marriage equality matter because religious arguments have long been used against not only marriage equality but also against gay people’s very right to love and even to live.”

Indeed, the perception of homosexuality as abhorrent and sinful has textual roots in the Old and New Testaments, portions of which were also incorporated into the Quran. The most commonly cited examples, the eight so-called clobber passages, range from the admonition in Leviticus 18:22 (“Thou shalt not lie with mankind as with womankind; it is abomination”) to the declaration in Corinthians 6:9 that the “effeminate” are among the “unrighteous” who shall not inherit the kingdom of God.

Sex between men was called sodomy in a reference to God’s destruction of Sodom, and even consensual male intercourse was criminalized under the name sodomy. In 1986, when the Supreme Court upheld a sodomy statute in Georgia, Chief Justice Warren E. Burger noted in his concurring opinion that “condemnation of these practices is firmly rooted in Judeo-Christian moral and ethical standards.”

Yet as far back as 1964, representatives from Baptist, Quaker and Episcopalian congregations in San Francisco formed a Council on Religion and the Homosexual to bridge the chasm between gay people and churches. One year later, the city’s branch of the National Federation of Temple Sisterhoods called for consensual homosexual behavior to be decriminalized.

Such early steps led to more explicit efforts in the 1990s and 2000s by activists like Rabbi Yoel Kahn in Reform Judaism and Rabbi Steven Greenberg in Orthodox Judaism to formulate a textual basis for accepting gay identity, sexuality and marriage. In 2006, the Catholic theologian Daniel C. Maguire, a professor of religious ethics at Marquette University in Milwaukee, published a pamphlet, “A Catholic Defense of Same-Sex Marriage,” sending copies to 270 bishops.

“We have no moral right to declare marriage off limits to persons whom God has made gay,” Dr. Maguire wrote. “We have no right to say that marriage, with all of its advantages and beauty, is a reward for being heterosexual.”

In response, the Roman Catholic bishops of the United States denounced the pamphlet as “irresponsible” and “false teaching.” Across denominational lines in 2008, a leading Mormon theologian and former bishop, Dr. Robert A. Rees, was formally silenced for about a year by his local leader in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, apparently for his consistent advocacy of compassion for gay and lesbian Mormons. The denomination was at the time campaigning for Proposition 8, the California ballot measure striking down same-sex marriage in the state.

Even so, theological dissidence has grown across the spectrum. Some scholars questioned whether the “clobber passages” referred to all homosexual activity or only to coerced sex or sexual rituals associated with idol worship. Many theologians asked why the condemnation of homosexuality should continue to be enforced when hardly any religious person today would follow the Bible’s injunction in Deuteronomy 21, for example, to stone to death a disobedient child. The American Muslim religious scholar Reza Aslan and a co-author, writing recently in Religion Dispatches, reminded their community of Islam’s commitment to care for “those who are persecuted.” Dr. Rees has cited the Mormon belief in the sacredness of family as consistent with the acceptance of same-sex marriages.

For Obery M. Hendricks Jr., formerly the president of Payne Theological Seminary of the African Methodist Episcopal Church, proclaiming his support for marriage equality meant breaking with a deep strain of homophobia in black Christianity. The court’s decision came as a kind of validation.

“The virulent opposition can’t be sustained by an informed reading of the text,” said Dr. Hendricks, who is now a visiting scholar in the religion department at Columbia University. “The opposition to homosexuality has a basis in culture that’s masquerading as religion. The textual evidence is ambiguous, at best. So the role of Bible scholars who support marriage equality is to show that there’s no biblical reason to oppress gay people. They are children of God.”