Thursday, June 10, 2004

Gay Marriage and the ELCA

The Lutheran Office for Governmental Affairs (LOGA), Washington D.C., the federal public policy office of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA), joined 25 other religious organizations June 3 to urge members of the U.S. Congress to reject the proposed "Federal Marriage Amendment" to the constitution. These groups claimed in a letter to Congress that the proposal threatens individual civil rights and religious freedom since, if adopted, it would restrict marriage to one man and one woman.

Spokesperson Karen Vagley, LOGA director, said the letter was not a statement about the morality of homosexuality or gay marriage but rather merely reflected the church's concern for civil rights. "All of our positions and statements are based on policy statements that have been approved by the church body," she said. "This is a civil rights issue, and our social statement is very clear on civil rights."

LOGA is acting independently of the parent ELCA and justifies its action by arguing that its position is consonant with established ELCA social statements that endorse the protection of civil rights for all citizens. Is LOGA correct, however, in its basic premise that gay marriage is a civil rights issue?

Jeff Jacoby, writer for the Boston Globe, argues that it’s not. Responding to an essay by Frank Rich in the New York Times which supported gay marriage and which was severely hostile and insulting to traditionalists, Jacoby writes:

Rich's essay -- "The Joy of Gay Marriage" -- went on to cast the supporters of traditional marriage as hateful zealots. They are "eager to foment the bloodiest culture war possible," he charged. "They are gladly donning the roles played by Lester Maddox and George Wallace in the civil rights era."

[But] those first four sit-in strikers, like the thousands of others who would emulate them at lunch counters across the South, weren't demanding that Woolworth's prepare or serve their food in ways it had never been prepared or served before. They weren't trying to do something that had never been lawful in any state of the union. They weren't bent on forcing a revolutionary change upon a timeless social institution.

All they were seeking was what should already have been theirs under the law of the land. The 14th Amendment had declared that blacks no less than whites were entitled to equal protection of the law. The Civil Rights Act of 1875 had barred discrimination in public accommodations. But the Supreme Court had gutted those protections with shameful decisions in 1883 and 1896. The court's betrayal of black Americans was the reason why, more than six decades later, segregation still polluted so much of the nation. To restore the 14th Amendment to its original purpose, to re-create the Civil Rights Act, to return to black citizens the equality that had been stolen from them. That was the great cause of civil rights.

The marriage radicals, on the other hand, seek to restore nothing. They have not been deprived of the right to marry -- only of the right to insist that a single-sex union is a "marriage." They cloak their demands in the language of civil rights because it sounds so much better than the truth: They don't want to accept or reject marriage on the same terms that it is available to everyone else. They want it on entirely new terms. They want it to be given a meaning it has never before had, and they prefer that it be done undemocratically -- by judicial fiat, for example, or by mayors flouting the law. Whatever else that may be, it isn't civil rights. But dare to speak against it, and you are no better than Bull Connor.

Ms. Vagley states that,"It is not the task of our government and elected representatives to enshrine in our laws the religious point of view of any one faith. Rather, our government should dedicate itself to protecting the rights of all citizens and all faiths."

But this reveals a misunderstanding of what the Marriage Amendment seeks to do. Its intent is not to enshrine into law the belief of a particular religious faith or denomination but rather to protect and preserve an understanding of marriage that has persisted for thousands of years across many cultures and religions and which experience has shown to be vital for the health of civil society.

That aside, however, Vagley’s insinuation that government has no business intruding into this sphere of life is certainly questionable. Although in principle I am sympathetic to her aversion to government intrusion, it nevertheless seems to me that the representatives of the people have as much right to legislate that marriage shall be restricted to one man and one woman as it does to exclude polygamous or incestuous unions between consenting adults.

If Vagley believes that gay marriage is a civil rights issue, is she also prepared to lend the weight of her office to a campaign to have laws against group marriage or kinship marriage repealed? Would Vagley view legislation designed to prevent large groups of gay men from getting married as an infringement upon their civil rights? If not, why not? If so, then it would be good of her to be up front about it and tell the entire Lutheran Church that the Lutheran Office of Governmental Affairs stands against all government imposed restrictions on who can marry whom and in what combinations.

The Frank Riches of the world like to portray advocates of the marriage amendment as divisive extremists - name-calling, after all, is such a satisfying substitute for argument among those who have no argument - but it’s not those who are seeking to preserve the heritage and tradition of two thousand years who are the extremists. It’s not those who feel that to abandon the definition of marriage that has served the vast majority of the world’s people for millennia who are the zealots. Rather it is those who, following a whim of current political fashion, would pour yet another corrosive acid onto the fabric of a social institution whose integrity and strength are crucial to the social well-being of our nation, who more closely fit the definitions of those terms.

Ms. Vagley is correct about one thing, however. This debate isn’t primarily about the morality or immorality of homosexuality. It’s not about homophobia. It’s about the future of the institution of marriage and, therefore, about the future of the family.