The likelihood that the Supreme Court next June will announce its discovery of a constitutional right to same-sex marriage raises an obvious question for the Catholic Church: What do we do now?
Two steps come to mind. First, press for strong legal protections for individuals and institutions conscientiously unable to cooperate with a legal regime that requires sweeping concessions to the LGBT agenda. Second, give serious thought to the possibility that the Church should quit serving as the government’s agent in legitimating marriages.
That firm decisions at the top levels of the Church are urgently needed couldn’t be more obvious. Consider a Washington Post editorial trashing Alabama authorities for resisting a Supreme Court order on behalf of gay marriage in that state. The court told Alabama to get cracking even though the court itself remains months away from a constitutional ruling.
“The [gay rights] movement is on the verge of a historic victory,” the February 11 editorial declared. “But that doesn’t mean activists and allies have succeeded in transforming the culture that for so long denied gay men and lesbians equal treatment.”
Transforming culture? Of course. The Post editorial noted some steps to take.
“Marriage equality is just one of many goals. State legislatures and federal lawmakers need to be convinced to enhance civil rights protections for gay men and lesbians — prohibiting employment discrimination, for example, or discrimination in business transactions. In places like Alabama, that will take a lot more effort.”
One form it’s already taken can be seen not in conservative Alabama but libertarian Oregon. There the Christian owners of a bakery were found guilty of violating anti-discrimination law by declining — in 2013, before the state even recognized same-sex marriage — to supply a wedding cake for a lesbian couple. Bakery owners Aaron and Melissa Klein cited religious convictions as their reason.
According to the Oregon Bureau of Labor and Industries, the Kleins face fines as high as $150,000. The actual amount will be decided in March. A hundred and fifty thousand for a wedding cake? Is this the Post’s “a lot more effort”? Iron-clad legal protection against state coercion to fall in line with gay marriage is desperately needed for individuals like the Kleins and institutions like the Catholic Church.
It won’t be easy. The Catholic News Agency (CNA) reports that the Ford and Arcus Foundations have given several million dollars to the American Civil Liberties Union and other groups to devise ways of blocking the religious freedom argument for not cooperating with same-sex marriage. If religious groups want First Amendment protections, they’ll have to fight.
Urgently needed, too, is consideration of whether the Church should stop registering marriages for the state. Increasingly, it becomes hard to see how the Church can continue as the government’s collaborator in this matter once the Supreme Court makes it final that what the government means by marriage is opposed to what the Church means.
Confusion about the meaning of marriage is already widespread. It’s the underlying issue in the crisis of marriage that last fall’s Synod of Bishops on marriage should have confronted and didn’t. But the synod’s omission is no reason for the Church to persist in a relationship with government that deepens the confusion.
A two-step procedure — come by the courthouse for a civil ceremony that satisfies the state, then come to church for a sacramental marriage — may sound cumbersome, but it’s an opportunity for catechesis on what marriage means. As secular America heads down the same-sex path, the Church now must go another, better way.
Russell Shawis the author or coauthor of 21 books and numerous articles, columns, and reviews. He is a member of the faculty of the Pontifical University of the Holy Cross in Rome, and former Secretary for Public Affairs of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops.