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On rights and rites in the same-sex marriage debate 

Guest Commentary

"The United States is not a theocracy under which religious law takes precedence over laws passed by democratically elected legislative bodies."

Since President Obama expressed his support of same-gender marriage, there has been an intense reaction among many in our nation. This debate must run its course in our society, as all major advances in civil and human rights have done in the past. Consider such hotly debated national issues as the abolition of slavery, the right to vote for women and African Americans, the end of legalized racial segregation in public accommodations and institutions, the struggle for unions and collective bargaining, the passage and enforcement of child labor laws, the adoption of minimum wage laws and workplace safety.

Each of these issues was a matter that had to work its way through an often hotly contested national debate.

What I wish for is a debate where neither side distorts biblical faith in the process. We must be sure that the civil and human rights promised and safeguarded by the US Constitution are not confused with the religious rites and rituals that are practiced and performed by various religious communities across the country. No one is arguing or insisting that any clergy person of any religious tradition must perform a same-sex wedding if their conscience or their church policy does not support such an action. That is where the idea of a RITE or a church ritual comes in.

By the same token, people of a particular religious tradition cannot and should not expect that their interpretation of any particular verse in the Bible must be the way by which national public policy is shaped and determined. The United States is not a theocracy under which religious law takes precedence over laws passed by democratically elected legislative bodies.

What is amazing to behold is how many Americans are prepared to support any bill that would ban the use of Sharia or strict Islamic law in our society, but seem quite content to impose a very conservative understanding of Levitical law from 8th century BC Israel on believers and non-believers alike in modern American society.

This nation has known earlier times and struggles when selected verses of the Bible were used to support slavery, relegate women to second-class status, justify the genocidal treatment of Native Americans, and promote "American exceptionalism" and "manifest destiny." We have eventually condemned the distortion and abuse of the Bible in those instances, and we must do so again today.

People of religious faith certainly have a voice in all discussions about public policy, but theirs is not the only voice. That is where the use of the word RIGHTS comes in, because it is the US Constitution and in this case the First Amendment and the establishment of religion clause and the Fourteenth Amendment and equal protection under the law for all citizens that are at stake. People of religious faith should not fear that they will be forced to perform a same-sex marriage ceremony if their conscience does not permit them to do so.

That being said, does our nation actually want to deny equal access to civil rights to some segment of our society that pays the same taxes, serves in the same military, worships in the same churches, lives in the same communities, sits and labors in the same workplaces, and belongs to the same family units as everyone else in this country simply because of their sexual orientation?

There are some cautions I would extend especially to my Christian neighbors and my clergy colleagues. First, you cannot take the verses in the Bible, like Leviticus 18:22 or Romans 1: 26-27 that seem to speak against homosexuality while ignoring the other prohibitions, sexual and otherwise, that appear within those same passages. How can people condemn homosexuality while continuing to engage in or remain silent about other behaviors against which the Bible speaks with equal passion? If the answer is that most of Leviticus deals with ancient practices and communal values that are no longer binding on modern society, then how is it that these verses on homosexuality manage to avoid a similar cultural critique?

If Romans 1 is the basis for the condemnation of homosexuality, then it must be remembered that that passage does not limit itself to same-sex behavior; it goes on to speak about malice, envy, greed, hatred, murder, strife, arrogance, slander, and disobeying parents. Why do we not hear the same outrage on these topics from those who are so outspoken over the single issue of same-sex marriage? Is it possible they can live with all of these other things going on around them, but they cannot abide homosexuality and same-sex marriage? Now it seems it is they who are leaving out or ignoring what the Bible has stated; the exact same charge so often leveled against those who seek to defend the civil rights of same-sex couples. They cannot have it both ways.

I fear there is more hypocrisy than honesty in this present discussion. Same-sex marriage is a major shift in how our society is structured. We need to have an extended, civil discussion about this matter. What has already been resolved as acceptable by many is still a matter that remains unresolved for others. Each side needs to respect and consider the point of view of the other without condemning to hell those who happen to hold differing views.

However, one thing must be kept clear; this is a matter of rights and not rites. This debate is about who we are and what we believe as Americans and not who we are and what we believe as Christians, Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, atheist, and non-believers. Democratic government is always tricky business, but never more so than when some deeply cherished religious value seems to be involved.

Let the debate continue, but as it does I am suggesting that we in the various faith communities cannot pick which biblical verses we will consider and which ethical issues we will pursue while leaving many other verses and issues unaddressed and unresolved.

Finally, people need to be sure that their support of or disagreement with a presidential candidate should not stand on a single issue. This may obscure other key issues, like high unemployment, a depressed housing market, the continuation of the costs associated with the war against terrorism, staggering levels of student debt, and an unstable global economy, that face our country today. People need to consider which of the presidential candidates seems to them to be best able to effectively address these concerns.

Even if persons cannot support a candidate's stance on same-sex marriage, they should remember that if they decide to stay home on Election Day because of that one issue, then they are "throwing the baby out with the bath water."

Dr. McMickle is president and Professor of Church Leadership at Colgate Rochester Crozer Divinity School.


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