Over the past two weeks, there has been the expected hand wringing and outcry from Christians about the passage of gay marriage in New York. Even in Spectrum’s forum the extension of rights to homosexual couples was decried as a “prelude to persecution.” I think at this juncture it is important to dispel the misconceptions surrounding what is monumental victory not only for homosexuals in New York, but also for all peoples of minority faiths (of which Adventism is a part).
First, the right of marriage that was extended in New York was not of a religious or spiritual nature. The most common misconception is that by extending marriage to homosexuals, the New York state legislature has fundamentally changed a long-standing Christian institution. Nothing could be further from the truth. What they changed was the nature of the secular institution of marriage, a right granted by society to couples who seek to contract their shared relationship and have it recognized as a special relationship by the society at large. The institution of Christian marriage has not been affected by this decision. Furthermore, there is no valid reason to withhold the use of the term marriage from homosexuals in a secular sense, considering the fact that the church gave that term to the state for heterosexual marriages long ago.
Second, there is something very dangerous in arguing that Christian officials who will now have to accommodate homosexuals despite their personal beliefs or Christian business owners who will now have to provide services to homosexual couples are facing some sort of persecution. The implication is that either homosexuals who have not been allowed to marry were not facing persecution (patently untrue) or that their persecution is somehow preferable to our own (also untrue). In fact, there is a stronger argument that no Christian is being persecuted at all. As elected officials, people are not called to uphold their own personal morality, but rather the principles of the polity. Yes, that does create a tension, but that tension was not created by the homosexual who is getting married— it has been created by the person who pledged allegiance to the rules of a polity that are opposed to their own morality. The principled stand for someone like Ms. MacEwen (the town clerk who has vowed to not certify any homosexual marriage in her jurisdiction) would be to resign her post, not to pass her persecution on to others. Furthermore, exactly what services should Christian business owners withhold from homosexuals that would be an expression of the Christian ethos? Should gay couples not have a place to sleep? Should gay couples not be able to eat simply because they’ll eat together? Should they not have their communal documents notarized simply because the notary public disagrees with their lifestyle? Where is the persecution in having to extend a service to another human being? Or in extending a secular right to someone who is different from you? The only thing that is being persecuted is that person’s prejudice. Instead of coddling my own pre-conceived notions of how to treat others, I would much rather follow the ethos of Christ, who did not withhold His help from anyone, despite the fact that they were all sinners.
Third, to argue that this momentous occasion is a sign of some negative prophecy is also misguided. It is correct to say that as time progresses, people will move further and further from the precepts of God. However, prophecy also tells us that people of true faith will be under attack, not necessarily from those of little or no faith, but those of a faith that seeks to usurp the freedom of morality that God has granted to every human being. The persecution that is spoken of so often in Adventist theology comes not from those who are seeking to provide freedom to people to live by whatever morality they choose, but from those who seek to force people to live by God’s precepts. Instead of attempting to engender in every heart a love for God’s law and moral precepts, they instead seek to create a façade of proper living through the force of secular law.
It is for this reason that the religious exemptions to the New York legislation are so important. Under these exemptions, those churches that choose not to honor homosexual marriages may do so. This is the system that we should seek to create and support. A system such as one established in New York gives religious adherents the freedom to believe as they wish and to act on that belief. At the same time, that same system gives freedom to homosexuals to live as they so desire. There are no moral requirements that the state is placing on anyone. That is the way it should be in an area as personal as marriage. Each human being is allowed, through the dictates of their own conscience, to decide how they each will live, and the consequences will fall as they may. Not only is this the best situation for gay people, but it also the best situation for every person of faith. For the same people who seek to inculcate a godly definition of marriage, may someday seek to inculcate some other godly definition with which we do not agree. I am sure that we would all want the same type of protections that were extended to homosexuals to be extended to us.
In conclusion, you will notice that very little has been said about whether homosexuality and homosexual conduct is right or wrong biblically. That is simply because in this matter whether the action is punishable by God is irrelevant to the question of whether or not New York should outlaw it. The question for New York is how they can provide the most people with the greatest extension of rights. When New York extended rights to homosexuals, they extended a right to all of us. It said that we each have the right to live by the dictates of our own conscience. It said that those who seek to force others to live by the dictates of their own conscience will not be allowed to hold sway. That type of strong statement is one that we should all stand and applaud.
Jason Hines is an attorney and doctoral student in Church-State Studies at the J.M. Dawson Institute of Church-State Studies at Baylor University. He blogs about religious liberty and other issues at http://thehinesight.blogspot.com.