On Nov. 6, 2012, 148 years after becoming “The Free State,” voters in the state of Maryland will have an opportunity to make history by becoming the first state in the Union to pass a marriage equality law at the voting booth, thereby extending the guarantees of equality to gay and lesbian couples in our state. Admittedly, I find the idea of voting on someone else’s civil rights a bit disconcerting because when the rights of a minority are submitted to a majority vote, all too often the minority loses. Nevertheless, I am hopeful that Marylanders will allow fairness to be the guiding principle informs their support for Question 6 on the ballot referendum.
As a Christian pastor, I am often asked why I have been so unapologetic in my advocacy for marriage equality for gay and lesbian couples. My answer is that for too long the issue of marriage equality has been mired in a theological debate between those on the one hand who oppose same-sex marriage based upon their religious beliefs, and those on the other who affirm it based upon theirs. While this is a legitimate debate for people of faith to have, the appropriate arena for that conversation is the house of worship, the seminary, the Bible study, or some other ecclesiastical setting. In a free, pluralistic democracy, we must recognize the distinction between the religious rite of marriage and the civil right of marriage. The former is the province of houses of worship, and the latter is the province of the state.
What I value as an American is the freedom we have of and from religion, which means that all Americans have the right to their theological convictions, but we do not have the right to impose our personal religious beliefs on others in matters of public policy. Marriage equality for me is primarily a public policy issue, not a theological one. It refers to the ability of two persons of the same sex to receive a civil marriage license, and to receive all of the rights and benefits of marriage accorded by the state. As a matter of justice and fairness, the state has an obligation to provide legal protection for all its citizens without the imposition of subjective theological interpretation. The state should not codify discrimination because of who people choose to love.
As our country becomes more diverse, the values that ought to inform our public policy discussions ought to be the values we share in common as Americans; values such as freedom and equality for all, rather than the beliefs that distinguish us. History has shown us that people have used religion to justify slavery, segregation, and the subjugation of women. Internationally, we have witnessed the sectarian strife and division that is caused when governments attempt to govern based upon subjective theological interpretation. That, however, is not what America is about. We endeavor to be a society where all people, regardless of their color, class, creed, country of origin, gender, or sexual orientation can live side by side assured that the guarantees of our Constitution are applied to everyone equally and fairly. While some find the idea that America is a Christian theocracy rhetorically appealing, history shows that this is untenable in a pluralistic democracy and not in keeping with the ideals of the U.S. Constitution and the principle of separation of church and state.
As an African American Christian pastor, I cannot stand on the side of those who would attempt to justify legalized discrimination under the guise of religious belief. The denial of rights to some based upon religious belief sets the precedent for the denial of rights to others based upon religious belief as well, and that would be a very dangerous public policy precedent to establish in America. As a Christian in America, I believe that my charge is to live in my faith, not to legislate it, and as long as the state does not seek to regulate the church, the church should not seek to regulate the state.
I urge Marylanders to vote for Question 6 because it does not force any religious institution or clergy person to acknowledge, affirm, or perform same-sex marriages if it is against their religious practices and beliefs. Marriage equality is about preserving the integrity of our democracy. As a nation, we cannot spend billions of dollars to export freedom abroad, and then enact laws that deny freedom to fellow Americans here at home. That is not right. We cannot have one set of laws for some, and another set of laws for others. That is not right.
Whatever happens in Maryland on Tuesday, and I am hopeful Question 6 will pass, this issue has caused and will cause more people of faith to re-examine the theological presuppositions they assume condemn gays and lesbians. As an evangelical pastor and a New Testament scholar, my reading of the Bible suggests that what is being condemned in the Christian scriptures (the Old and New Testaments) are acts of same-sex violence, abuse, and exploitation, not consensual same gender relationships. Unfortunately, this is often obscured in many of the English transliterations of the Bible that most Christians read, but a careful reading of the Bible in Hebrew and Greek suggests that what we have assumed the Bible condemns, perhaps it does not. That then, should provide the impetus to extend the Bible’s mandate to welcome and show radical love to all people, even gays and lesbians seeking to live out their faith and be true to who they are. While the issue of marriage equality will challenge people of faith in the short term, in the end I believe it will help our nation and our houses of worship become a beloved community for all people.