Public Policy on Same-Sex Marriage: The State and the Church

Let me begin by stating the importance of this question for Christians as we begin to process the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling on same-sex marriage. While the reaction to this court decision among Christians ranged dramatically from elation to dismay to heartbreak, this case presents an opportunity for all Christians to reevaluate how to extend love to gays and lesbians in both the public sphere and within the Christian community. I firmly believe that how Christians respond to this moment will define the relevancy of Christianity to the broader culture in the years to come. This issue will also be a critical test for church unity and critical dialogue in the face of a deep theological and ideological divide. 

This essay outlines two basic public policy positions on same-sex marriage. First, in order for gays and lesbians to fully participate in public life as equal citizens, same-sex marriage should be upheld as a fundamental legal or civil right. This position advances the principles of democracy, in which every citizen in society is involved in defining the common good. However, religious institutions that oppose same-sex marriage should not be compelled to support this public law. Thus, public policy should grant exemptions from participating in same-sex marriage ceremonies to institutions that are inherently religious. This position is consistent with the concept of principled pluralism, which reflects the diversity and differentiation of God’s creation. This exemption also provides space for the church to pursue a healthy and honest discussion on this issue.


What Does Pluralism Require?

As the leading question acknowledges, we live in a pluralistic society. This term, pluralism, has undergone a radical transformation in Christian circles over the past three decades. In my view, the first treatment of this term among Christians was largely reactionary. The fading dominance of the Christian worldview in American society beginning in the 1970s caused anxiety among some quarters of Christianity.  These sentiments fueled the rise of the New Christian Right and the ushered in the culture wars in the politics of the 1980s and 1990s. 

However, I believe a more constructive connotation of pluralism has emerged over the last decade, one that seeks to respect individual differences within society and attempts to meet people where they are spiritually, intellectually, and relationally. For instance, in their recent book, Amazing Grace (2010), David Campbell and Robert Putnam find that those who regularly attend church increasing support civil liberties for opponents of religion and for homosexuals. These broad shifts have depoliticized Christianity and cultivated more political diversity within the Christian community. 

It is in this latter vein of pluralism that I start my policy discussion by first asking what does a pluralistic society that promotes individual freedom require of Christians as thoughtful and responsible citizens? A core value of liberal democracies is tolerance. Initially instituted to address religious diversity and the conflict it can inevitably breed, tolerance for other citizens is a necessary backdrop for a just political order that allows free people to play a role in public deliberation and decision-making (see Robert Paul Wolff’s essay “Beyond Tolerance” from 1965). This vision is also consistent with Steve Monsma’s definition of justice, which is by nature freedom-producing: “People are freed to develop their gifts, to follow their passions, and to live life to the fullest as the responsible, loving beings God created us to be” (Healing for a Broken World, 2008, p. 58). Thus, promoting the virtue of tolerance does not mean that God is absent from society in general or individual lives. It does mean that Christians give space for God to exercise his sovereignty.

An important feature of tolerance is the application of the law, which is an extension of the state. If we value the contributions and experiences of each citizen in civil society, then every citizen should have relatively equal standing under the law. American history is replete with examples of citizens being denied full citizenship because of a certain understanding of the law. Our history also includes instances in which the equal protection clause and the due process clause contained in the 14th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution have been used to correct discriminatory or unfair treatment of the law. These actions have positively affected the lives of millions of racial minorities and women. The case of Obergefell and Hodges, which constitutionally struck down state bans on same-sex marriage, is the latest application of this principle. Granting same-sex couples the fundamental right to marry in the eyes of the state allow gays and lesbians to enter into public life as free individuals and enjoy all of the legal benefits that come with this civil designation. 

Lastly, pluralism prompts us to enter into a larger collective community and interact with people with different realities or belief systems than our own. For example, as a white male, I have a very limited point of reference for the everyday experiences of other racial and gender groups in society. However, citizenship requires that I consider these experiences in evaluating the overall effectiveness or value of public policy. To some degree, I am referring to the ideal of “e pluribus unum,” which calls Americans to unite under a single purpose. In order for this ideal to be realized in an authentic way, citizens must be committed to engaging in meaningful political conversations with different groups in society. This model of citizenship is increasingly difficult in an era of political and cultural polarization, but is nonetheless critical to defining the common good.   

These various requirements of a pluralistic society lead me to my first general policy position regarding same-sex marriage. For gays and lesbians to be full members of civil society, they should be entitled to the same rights and privileges as any other member of society. This, of course, means they should have the right to marry same-sex partners, but also not be subject to any forms of discrimination in areas of public life including voting, housing, education, and employment. This position is based on a pluralistic understanding of public policy that seeks to serve the common good, which must be informed by all members of society in order to be legitimate. I would also add that this position does not hinge on one’s personal view of homosexuality, but on the precepts of a civil society. 


The Role of Religion in Public Life

The position above obviously raises an important question on the role of religion in public life and the lives of individuals. How can Christians be salt and light in society (Matthew 5:13-16)? First of all, Christians can and should actively participate in political debates in order to promote a public agenda that advances justice, peace and reconciliation for all people. Within the public realm, this is how Christians can love our neighbors (Mark 12:30-31). Christians have the opportunity to be spokespersons for a common good that seeks to uplift every member of society, respects the God-given dignity of every human being, and builds meaningful communities based on mutual respect. These activities are connected to a cosmic view of redemption in which Jesus Christ seeks to reclaim all facets of creation.  

On the other hand, what constitutes the Christian life is communing with a living God. Christianity is also about sharing the transformative message of Jesus Christ. The question is can public policy transmit this very personal message? My own view is that it has severe limitations. Relationships to both God and others are much more important in serving this core mission. One of my favorite theologians is John Stott, who has succinctly linked the Christian walk to political involvement (see Decisive Issues Facing Christians Today, 1984). For example, praying, evangelizing, affirming Biblical truths, and being a faithful witness all touch the lives of individuals but can also have profound political consequences. More importantly, all of these elements of faith prompt to seek God first before pursuing our own and sometimes-flawed understanding of God’s will. 

Finally, churches and other voluntary organizations can act independently from the state to promote an alternative or more nuanced vision of what is advantageous for individuals and society at large. Some might refer to this arrangement as the separation of church, which has many different legal interpretations. A richer theological explanation for this arrangement is the concept of principled pluralism. Corwin Smidt provides an apt description of this Reformed concept:

Broadly speaking, principled pluralism may be viewed as a framework of understanding that serves to explain and accept the diversity evident in public life, that recognizes different structures of authority that operate within different spheres of social life, and that provides a basis for opposition both totalitarianism and individualism in political life.” (Church, State, and Public Justice, 2007, p. 127) 

Principled pluralism has two important implications for the public policy debate regarding same-sex marriage. First, according to this concept, organizations that are not tied to the state play a vital role in social life. Theologically, principled pluralism views God mediating his power on earth through various offices or representatives.  Thus, it suggests that religious and other types of organizations can rightly and with authority speak to the conditions of same-sex couples, family issues relating to same-sex couples, and the cultural impact of same-sex relationships. As such, these structures offer a unique space for Christians to discuss the moral, ethical, and theological dimensions of homosexuality.

Second, the concept of principled pluralism sees the world as a diverse and differentiated creation designed by God. As a result, no one structure should dominate the others as each serves a specific purpose. This notion suggests that non-state structures should have the ability to exercise some independence from the prescribed public policy, as long as these activities do not deprive citizens of basic legal protections. For religious structures, this independence has been pursued in religious free-exercise arguments pertaining to the First Amendment of the Constitution.  These arguments have been used to exempt individuals and organizations from complying with certain portions of the law that contradict a sincere religious conviction. 

The last point above is critically important to the Christian community as it seeks to understand this issue from a Biblical and theological perspective. In order for this discussion to be fair, thorough, and determinative, Christians who oppose same-sex marriage have to be allowed to speak their conscience. Openness and charity are needed as Christians come together to affirm the commitments of being a follower of Jesus Christ and to honestly explore how these commitments relate to same-sex relationships. Many of these discussions have already taken place; however, they must not stop because of the recent U.S. Supreme Court case recognizing same-sex marriage. We must continue to listen to each other and move forward on this issue together. 

The above discussion leads me to a second general public policy position. Religious organizations should be given a narrow religious exemption on the issue of same-sex marriage. Specifically, church clergy and religious institutions should be able to exercise their religious freedom found in the First Amendment and not be compelled to perform or take part in same-sex marriage ceremonies. This objection would be in line with past exemptions given to houses of worship, religious schools and missions in the selective employment of gays or lesbians. (See the Federal Employment Non-Discrimination Act).  Moreover, such exemptions do not deprive gays and lesbians from exercising the legal act of marriage through the state or other types of religious institutions that approve of same-sex marriage. 

Some have recently implied that the arguments for this type of a religious exemption are akin to arguments used to uphold racial segregation in the South in the 1960s (see William Saletan’s discussion in “The Race Analogy” in Slate). This argument suggests that opposition to same-sex marriage among Christians and other religious groups is motivated by enmity rather than a sincere desire to follow a specific religious doctrine. A full accounting of the values and behavior of most Christians would indicate this not to be the case. Moreover, this suggestion not only mischaracterizes the nature of the debate, it is toxic to any constructive debate on this issue publicly or within the church community.   

However, I want to be clear on when this religious exemption would not apply. First, it would not allow an individual acting on behalf of the state to refrain from the administration of same-sex marriage because of a personal religious belief to the contrary. Under this policy, Kim Davis, the Kentucky county clerk who refused to issue marriage licenses because of her objection to same-sex marriage, would not be able to exercise this religious exemption. Granting such an exemption in this case would cause too much harm to the legal rights of gays and lesbians. If this exemption were allowed, it would likely lead to a cascading effect across the country where more and more public officials would assert their own belief system rather than follow the law. The end result would be less and less freedom for gay and lesbian citizens.

According to the policy position above, this religious exemption would also not permit individuals in a private business setting to deny a variety of wedding services to gays and lesbians. Many of the high-profile stories on same-sex marriage pertain to this exact issue.  For example, earlier this summer the owners of a bakery in Oregon were fined $135,000 for denying service to a lesbian couple. The state of Indiana recently passed a controversial religious freedom restoration act that makes it legally possible for businesses to refuse wedding services to same-sex couples. The Hobby Lobby case or Burwell v. Hobby Lobby, in which the U.S. Supreme Court held that the federal statute on religious freedom applied to closely held corporations also raises arguments for this type of religious exemption. 

In my view, this exemption is not good public policy because it could easily be abused by individuals and businesses who may not have a sincere religious objection to same-sex marriage. It is much more apparent for religious organizations to demonstrate this objection because of their explicit religious mission, which would also encapsulate individuals with similar personal views. Moreover, the discriminatory nature of granting this type of religious exemption in largely the public sphere of commerce seems unnecessary and completely avoidable. 



As Christians begin to consider how to respond to the recognition of same-sex marriage, compassion and humility should guide our public policy approach. Christians have the opportunity to demonstrate compassion by ensuring that gays and lesbians can exercise fundamental legal rights that enable them to function in society and to flourish. The freedom that flows from these rights also allows individuals to develop into the people that God intended. Moreover, non-state structures can play a vital role in cultivating compassion for everyone touched by this issue.

Christians should also approach this issue with a healthy dose of humility. I am encouraged by the willingness of both sides of the debate on same-sex marriage to engage in a constructive dialogue within the church. We can only enter in such a discussion if we are open to God’s revelation, and practice humility in our own understanding of his Word and his general will. Christians can enter into this dialogue with full confidence of who God is and his continuous process of reconciliation for all things. 

2 replies
  1. Julia Stronks
    Julia Stronks says:

    As Harold mentioned on the introductory page, we did not anticipate that Mikael and I would have so much agreement in our public policy approach. In fact, I have not read any fellow Christian’s writing on this topic that more closely resembled my own. This is a delight for me because when my first article on pluralism and same-sex marriage came out twenty years ago (Christian Scholar Review) people were pretty nasty. It was a lonely period for me so it was really fun to read Mikael’s thoughtful and very smart piece. But I can imagine that it was upsetting for those readers hoping to read a conversation between authors who disagreed. So, I look forward to the addition of Adam MacLeod to our group. I am eager to read what he has to say.
    The point on which I’d like further discussion is Mikael’s argument relevant to exemptions for faith-based institutions. I agree with him that both pluralism and the First Amendment require exemptions but we all have to talk more about what the exemptions ought to look like. There are several areas where exemptions are sought: hiring practices for faith-based non-profit and for-profit businesses; consumer challenges where for-profit businesses are choosing not to serve same-sex wedding clients; housing issues where religious owners of rental properties are choosing not to rent to same-sex couples. The law as it relates to exemptions for non-profits is more fully developed than the law relating to for-profits. So, the question I have for readers is this: if you believe in exemptions, do you think exemptions should extend to for-profit businesses? If so, should a business simply get to refuse to serve some people? How would this be different than refusing to serve people based on race? Should exemptions be allowed only for hiring practices?
    For myself, I think the main distinction is not whether organizations are owned by religious people but whether the owners have made an effort to craft the entire organization along the lines required by their faith. If a baker will make a cake for anyone, then the baker may not say, “I won’t craft a cake for a same-sex couple.” But, if a baker has a whole faith-based approach to his or her craft, and faith not only permeates the baking of all goods but also is a part of the baker’s entire approach to consumer relations—then I feel a little differently. Can a democracy handle a for-profit business that serves only people who align with a specific understanding of a faith tradition? Or, would we say that all business engaged in consumer transactions must serve and hire without regard to sexual identity?
    I know that the next group of writers will take up this topic and I am eager to learn from them as well.

  2. says:

    I would like to recommend a book that readers my find helpful as they ponder Julia’s call (in the first comment posted above) for “further discussion” regarding “Mikael’s argument relevant to exemptions [to laws] for faith-based institutions.”

    That book is the recently published "Free to Serve: Protecting the Religious Freedom of Faith-based Organizations," authored by Stephen V. Monsma and Stanley W. Carlson-Thies. Arguing from a “principled pluralist” position, the authors reject the extremes of exemptions “always” or “never” being granted and grapple with possible criteria for when it is appropriate for such exemptions to be made. In the process they deal with many high-profile recent cases like the Hobby Lobby case (which is pertinent to Julia’s question as to whether “exemptions should extend to for-profit businesses”).


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