I have long been hesitant to write about the marriage equality issue because of my own nuanced feelings on the issue. I have always strongly believed that our society must confer the same protections and benefits upon couples regardless of sexual orientation – and as the current debate has progressed, I have become increasingly persuaded that such benefits must include the civil contract which the law defines as “marriage.” Thus, on a basic policy level, I agree with today’s U.S. Supreme Court ruling.
Yet, I remain fundamentally uncomfortable with this ruling for other reasons. First, I do not think that the Court’s evisceration of the democratic process was necessary or wise in this instance. The rapid growth of states which have adopted marriage equality shows a fundamental change in societal attitudes on this issue; a transformation which seems only likely to accelerate as the so-called “millennials” achieve a greater share of political power. I think that the Court could have steered a more moderate course by requiring states to recognize all marriages performed in other states, without directly overruling a particular state’s definition of marriage by judicial fiat. Instead of promoting an emerging national consensus, this ruling seems destined to exacerbate divisions on this issue.
Second, I think the Court short-circuited a vital discussion that needs to occur in our society regarding the entanglement of church and state when it comes to marriage. Given the “wall” that exists between church and state in almost every other instance, I have always thought that marriage offered an interesting display of cognitive dissonance. Many of us have gotten married in a church and divorced by a judge – and ministers who officiate a marriage ceremony frequently proclaim that they act “under the authority of God and the State of ______.”
I certainly hope that this entanglement does not become the “nose under the tent” which leads to a broader intrusion upon the free exercise of religion and the freedom of conscience in America – yet, I cannot not see how ministers who invoke the state’s authority can avoid performing same-sex marriages under the implications of today’s ruling. Perhaps the onus is now upon the churches which do not recognize same-sex marriage; they can always distinguish between “spiritual marriage” and “legal marriage,” and limit the marriage ceremonies they perform to the former. Of course, many couples would have to participate in two wedding ceremonies – but I think that the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution has always mandated that result.
My main concern is that today’s decision has steamrolled the dissent on this issue, foreclosing the natural consensus that could have otherwise emerged; a consensus that would have confirmed and strengthened the boundaries between church and state in America. Instead, I am concerned that the Supreme Court’s ruling will further blur the line between private conscience and public responsibility; an outcome which does not seem likely to enhance the long-term health of our nation.