The election on November 6 is likely to be a consequential one for a wide variety of issues—certainly, marriage equality is one of them. Like many denominations, the Seventh-day Adventist church has struggled to address the expansion of civil rights for LGBT people. Same-sex marriage is one of the many hot-button issues—like the current debate on whether the church should ordain women into gospel ministry—which members of this church are currently facing. In the United States there are six states that have legalized same-sex marriage: Connecticut, Iowa, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New York, Vermont and the District of Columbia. In less than a week, marriage equality will be on the ballot in four more states: Maine, Maryland, Minnesota and Washington.
This is significant because it represents an opportunity for citizens in each of these states to determine if they too will recognize that the right to marry should be extended to LGBT people as well. The outcome of the ballot initiatives in two states (Maryland and Washington) will be closely watched by many of us. Maryland is the home to Washington Adventist University and our church headquarters in Silver Spring, Maryland. Washington state is home to Walla Walla University. All three of these institutions are very important within the Adventist community.
In states where same-sex marriage is on the ballot, it presents a difficult decision for many Christians in the United States. Some people of faith feel that they cannot extend the right to marry to gays and lesbians because of their personal religious beliefs. On the other hand, a majority of Americans now favor extending the right to marry to all citizens. I feel that it is important to note that within this majority of Americans that now support marriage equality are people of faith; many of them are Christian. A common misconception is that LGBT individuals are not people of faith, and further—that if they are part of a religious community, their faith is not sufficient because they are gay and lesbian—which could not be further from the truth. The documentary Seventh-Gay Adventists does a masterful job highlighting three LGBT Adventist couples who are committed to their faith community. In addition to LGBT members of the Adventist church, there are many LGBT leaders of faith from numerous denominations who have made a positive impact in their communities as the Huffington Post points out.
But a more common argument that opponents of same-sex marriage make has little to do with marriage or religion and more to do with their views of sexuality overall. Some assume that all LGBT individuals are inherently anti-God and are prone to atavistic sexual behavior, though this is not the case. Referring to LGBT people and same-sex couples with the pejorative phrase “gay lifestyle” is one way opponents show their assumptions. Imagine if, as a responsible, faithful adult, you were lumped in with the likes of Hugh Heffner because you followed the so-called “straight lifestyle.” Imagine being informed that all straight people participated in lewd Mardi Gras-style behavior or like wild heterosexual college students on Spring Break. Would that be fair to you? I doubt many straight people would enjoy that mischaracterization for the simple reason that there’s a big difference between sexual orientation and lifestyle.
Beyond much of the cultural mischaracterizations of gay people, some of the opposition to same-sex marriage from the religious-political right raises issues of religious liberty. This is a valid concern. Jason Hines has a great analysis of why same-sex marriage is not a threat to religious liberty in his article We Have Met The Enemy.
Interestingly, protection of religious liberty for religious institutions and churches is very strong in this country since it is explicitly protected by the Constitution. In addition to this protection, in cases where states have passed legislation to extend the rights of LGBT citizens to marry, they have included “exceptions” that further protect churches and clergy members. In some cases, these religious liberty exceptions exceed what many legal scholars would consider to be constitutionally necessary. These exceptions do not necessarily mean that legal liabilities are totally eliminated; however, it lays the framework for a larger firewall of legal protection for religious institutions. I view this as a positive effort.
Despite these efforts, we can observe powerful opposition groups like NOM (National Organization for Marriage) attempting to galvanize support from minority groups and the Seventh-day Adventist church to block marriage equality in Maryland. Recently, the issue of marriage equality was discussed in Washington, D.C. by several Adventist leaders, scholars and pastors at the Capital Memorial Church. A screening of Seventh-Gay Adventists was hosted by the Metro Area Adventist Young Adults, which was followed by a panel entitled “A Discussion on Homosexuality and the Church”. Much of the panel discussion was devoted almost entirely to why same-sex marriage is a huge threat to religious liberty.
Several of the opinions in this panel discussion mirror a trend in the Seventh-day Adventist church, which recently reaffirmed its opposition to same-sex marriage. While I disagree with this statement for a number of reasons, I am glad that they included a section that encourages compassion toward gays and lesbians, though this is not clearly defined.
It is not difficult for me to support marriage equality. I have many friends who are gay and lesbian, and I know many legally married same-sex couples. They have the same concerns, hopes and dreams as many of you. As my LGBT friends seek to marry the person they love, I would encourage you to think about the person you love. Think about why that relationship is important to you, and how meaningful marriage is.
Even then, marriage is about more than dignity. It is about equality and fairness. Since marriage is a civil right, it should be extended to all people. Because of discriminatory laws like DOMA (the so-called Defense of Marriage Act) same-sex couples who are legally married are not entitled to the many federal marriage benefits that opposite-sex couples currently enjoy. In 2004, the Government Accounting Office found that these include over 1,000 federal marriage benefits, rights and privileges. Despite what you or I may think about same-sex marriage, we should support marriage equality simply because it is a civil right. A marriage license is issued by the state, not the church.
Instead of getting all worked up over the abstract concept of “gay marriage”, why don’t we focus on extending the right to marry to all people, making our society a more equal and loving place? If you live in Maine, Maryland, Minnesota or Washington, I encourage you to vote in favor of marriage equality.
—Jonathan is a senior at Pacific Union College, pursuing a Bachelor of Science degree in Music (Piano).