DOMA Ruling Not Likely to Change Religious Practices

Chicago DOMA
Image by WBEZ/Shawn Allee

The Supreme Court may have invalidated California's ban on gay marriage and declared unconstitutional the Defense of Marriage Act, but whether to allow gay marriage is still a contested and complicated question in religious denominations.

The US Conference of Catholic Bishops and the Southern Baptist Convention were ardent supporters of DOMA and have been one of the country's largest sources of anti-same-sex-marriage advocacy. Both intend to continue their efforts against the further legalization of same-sex marriage. (The court's ruling on Proposition 8 in California effectively allows gay marriage in state, but it doesn't change the laws or same-sex marriage bans found in other states.)

The Southern Baptist Convention's Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission President Russell Moore said the decision was "sweeping," pointing out that it "redefined marriage." Moore expressed concern about the potential implications it had for "for religious liberty and churches" as well as his own moral views that ran counter to same-sex marriage.

Dozens of anti-gay-marriage groups, including the Southern Evangelical Seminary and National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference, all announced they had plans to "stand together as Christians" and defend their view of marriage.

The majority of the largest religious groups in the country -- the Roman Catholic Church (with 68 million people as members), the Southern Baptist Convention (with 16 million), the United Methodist Church (with 8 million), as well as the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (with 6 million) -- refuse to perform same-sex marriage. These churches have all drafted official policies or resolutions that define marriage as being between one man and one woman.

Yet the number of religious denominations performing same-sex marriage or blessing ceremonies is growing. This despite the fact that surveys consistently point to religious views as explanation for their opposition to gay marriage.

A number of non-Christian groups and smaller Christian denominations have begun performing same-sex marriage ceremonies or blessings in the last ten years. In 2005, the United Church in Christ (with about a million members) voted to allow same-sex marriage ceremonies. Individual congregations, which are more or less autonomous, may still chose not to perform the ceremonies. The Unitarian Universalist Association of Congregations has sanctioned same-sex marriage since 1996.

Last year the Episcopal Church (1.9 million members) voted to bless same-sex unions, and some individual priests have performed the marriages for years. These blessings are not, in a religious sense, marriages. The Episcopal Church still defines marriage as being between people of the opposite sex. Priests may, however, officiate at otherwise secular marriage ceremonies in places where same-sex marriage has been legalized, while bishops can disallow same-sex blessings inside their dioceses.

The Presbyterian Church in the US similarly allows blessings but disallows marriages.

Non-Christian religions have varying views on same-sex marriage. Of the three large Jewish denominations, two (Conservative and Reform) approve of same-sex marriage. Each group lets individual rabbis decide whether they will officiate same-sex ceremonies. The largest Orthodox body in the country, the Orthodox Union, opposes same-sex marriage.

Among Muslims, most mosques prohibit same-sex marriages, though there are a number of pro-gay marriage Muslim organizations with LGBT-friendly mosques. Among Hindus and Buddhists, there are no official positions on same-sex marriage -- though there's some evidence ancient Hindu texts condone homosexuality.

Compared to the religions themselves, members are often much more gay-friendly. A survey by the Pew Research Center found more than half of the Catholics and non-evangelical white Protestants they surveyed were in favor of gay marriage. Among black and white evangelical Protestants, 32 and 23 percent respectively favored same-sex unions. The numbers have steadily increased over the last 10 years.


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