New York Times Gay Marriage Opinion Essay

Race relations in this country show how religious practice and doctrine can change when public attitudes and the law change. Before the Civil War, many Mormons and Southern Protestants maintained that the Bible supported slavery for persons of African descent; when slavery ended, the same denominations read Scripture to require segregation of the races and to bar interracial relationships. Apartheid was the legal regime codifying those religious and social attitudes.

As American public opinion and constitutional law moved away from such overt discrimination in the 20th century, so did American religion. Southern Presbyterians and Methodists renounced their racist readings of the Bible in the middle of the last century, while most Southern Baptists did so after landmark civil rights legislation in the 1960s. The Mormons abandoned formal racial segregation in 1978.

Biblical support for slavery, segregation and anti-miscegenation laws rested upon broad and anachronistic readings of isolated Old Testament passages and the Letters of Paul, but without strong support from Jesus’ teachings in the Gospels. The now concedes that its churches misinterpreted the word of God on matters of race. The current Baptist view that God condemns “homosexual behavior” and same-sex marriages comes from the same kind of broad and anachronistic scriptural readings as prior support for segregation.

In his teachings, Jesus emphasized love for one’s neighbor and tolerance for the many kinds of people in the world. Jesus instructed his followers, “Judge not, and you shall not be judged; condemn not, and you shall not be condemned.” These are not lessons that ought to inspire disrespect for two women in a committed partnership who have four adopted children — two of whom have special needs — as one of the plaintiff couples in Obergefell v. Hodges do.

My point is not that the Bible must be read in a gay-friendly way; it is simply that the Bible is open to honest interpretations that refuse to condemn or that even embrace such families. I am doubtful that Scripture speaks with one voice about how to define civil marriage.

Remarkably few of the Bible’s spiritual heroes exemplify what Americans now consider “traditional marriage”: Abraham had two wives, Sarah and her handmaiden, Hagar; King David and King Solomon had many wives; Jesus and most of his apostles apparently never married; the was married but conceived Jesus outside the marital union; Paul urged his colleagues to remain unmarried (as he did), unless their passions overwhelmed them.

Assume that I am wrong and that the Bible unequivocally demands that marriage be defined as one man, one woman. Does that require people of faith to disrespect and exclude gay couples? No, it doesn’t. A recent example is telling.

The Seventh Commandment admonishes the faithful not to commit adultery. The book of Matthew, 19:9, has one of the few direct pronouncements on sexual morality that Jesus made. One common translation: “Whosoever shall put away his wife, except it be for fornication, and shall marry another, committed adultery.” Paul went further, to forbid divorce as well as remarriage.

A generation ago, many Christian churches followed these biblical admonitions and would not sanction what they viewed as “adulterous” second marriages. Today, in large part because of the power of changing social norms, it is no longer common for most Protestant churches to refuse to marry a woman to a man who had divorced his previous wife. And few churches would exclude or disrespect a couple because either spouse had married before.

Assume that the Supreme Court interprets the 14th Amendment to mean that states can’t exclude gay couples from civil marriage. What will the faith traditions, which are adamantly opposed to same-sex marriage, do? The tolerant path I’ve suggested won’t unfold immediately, and different denominations will respond in different ways.

Some congregations will double down, not only reaffirming their understanding of traditional marriage but denouncing gay people even more fervently. The First Amendment gives them the right to react this way.

But if all 50 states issue marriage licenses on an equal basis, more same-sex couples will choose to wed. Some religious communities will take this as an opportunity to reconsider their views of those committed unions, and quietly welcome these families into their houses of worship.

With greater tolerance and acceptance of gay married couples, more religions will, slowly, modify doctrinal discourse to match social discourse — exactly the way they did for their previous disapproval of marriages between two people of different races. It’s beginning to happen already: Last summer, the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) voted to allow its ministers to perform marriage ceremonies for gay couples, a stance ratified by a majority of presbyteries last month.

For years, Americans harbored hurtful stereotypes about gay people as anti-family; the same-sex marriage movement has helped rebut those inaccurate notions. Today, some progressives harbor inaccurate stereotypes about religious people as anti-gay and intolerant. The Episcopalians, Unitarians, Presbyterians and many other faiths are falsifying those stereotypes. Just as American religion is changing, so, too, are the ranks of those who are pushing for equality.

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Correction: May 10, 2015

An opinion essay on April 26 overstated what is known about Jesus’ apostles. One of them, Peter, is believed to have been married; it is not the case that none of them married.

Ballots will be distributed to Australians who meet the registration deadline, Aug. 24.

Same-sex marriage is a highly politicized issue in the country, and experts said the postal vote was a highly unusual, perhaps unique, path for Australia to pursue. Prof. Paula Gerber, deputy director of the Castan Center for Human Rights Law at Monash University in Melbourne, said she did not know of another country that had sought such an advisory vote.

Ireland, for example, became the first country to legalize same-sex marriageby popular vote in 2015, but that referendum was conducted in person and legally binding. The vote in Australia will be neither. Professor Gerber said she believed it showed how “out of step” the government was with the wishes of the Australian people, “because the public overwhelmingly in opinion polls support marriage equality.”

“Really, this plebiscite is no more than a glorified opinion poll — a 122-million-dollar opinion poll,” Professor Gerber said.

The decision to let the Australian Bureau of Statistics handle the postal vote instead of the Australian Electoral Commission has also mystified some politicians, who say the bureau has never been asked to do anything like it.

When delegates gathered in Canberra in 1998 to debate whether Australia should refashion itself as a republic, some of those delegates were selected by mail. But a nationwide postal vote on an issue like this has no precedent, experts said, and that unfamiliarity is one reason supporters are wary.

It became clear on Thursday that proponents of change were starting to divide into two groups — one challenging the process, possibly boycotting it, and the other accepting the process and pushing for a “yes” vote.

“I think the less said about this irregular and unscientific polling, the better,” Michael Kirby, a former High Court judge, told Radio National, an arm of the Australian Broadcasting Corporation. “I’m not going to take any part in it whatsoever. I think they should abandon it.”

Professor Gerber, at Monash, said the leader of the election campaign for same-sex marriage in Ireland came to Australia a few months ago and strongly discouraged holding a vote in Australia.

“He did talk about the damage that it did and the harm that was caused to the L.G.B.T.I. community through having such a public, vitriolic debate about whether they’re equal and worthy of being allowed to marry,” she said.

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