If same-sex marriage were simply about allowing people to live their lives as they see fit, then once Obergefell ruled the United States Constitution required states to license same-sex marriages, that others had a different opinion and maintained their understanding of marriage as the joining of man and woman wouldn’t have mattered. But, of course, that wasn’t and isn’t the case. This is because same-sex marriage is about what people say, what they think, what they believe. It is about eliminating from public acceptance those who don’t endorse it, even simply as a matter of conviction.
Towards the end of 2022, with passage of the federal law named, “The Respect For Marriage Act,” the subject of same-sex marriage reemerged as a prominent public issue.
“How does two people getting married affect you?” supporters of same-sex marriage say. There have also been Christians effectively saying, “What’s the big deal? Why should we expect the government to pass laws requiring non-Christians to live as though they’re Christians?”
While, in general, there can be truth to be heeded in these and similar statements – “mind your own business” has its rightful place after all! – the Christian’s participation in civil society, which includes the command to love our neighbor, does not limit our evaluation to what’s in our self-interest, i.e., what affects us. Furthermore, in this case, these and similar sentiments are missing the essence of the case that has been advanced in favor of same-sex marriage. Contrary to many arguments advanced in its favor, same-sex marriage as a public and legal issue is not about regulating conduct or controlling people’s lives.
David French, one of the more prominent evangelical defenders of civil same-sex marriage, wrote: “I don’t want my gay friends and neighbors to live in fear that the law might tear their families apart.”
However, this concern is not well-founded. The contemporary secular state does not require marriage for any type of family arrangement. As a matter of fact, as it unfolded, the same-sex marriage debate was not about how people order their lives, or the choices and decisions they are free to make or not make.
The same-sex marriage discussion was about the meaning of the word, “marriage.” In particular, it was and is about whether the male-female union’s unique characteristics, uniting the two sexes in the only life-generating relationship, could be recognized by virtue of having the appellation “marriage” only applied to it. Inseparably, it was and is about the distinction between male and female.
It was this assignment of the word “marriage” to the male-female union alone, absent any restriction or regulation of conduct or life-decisions pertaining to other relationships, that the United States Supreme Court in 2015, in declaring a constitutional right to same-sex marriage in Obergefell v. Hodges, determined was “demeaning,” “hurtful,” “imposes stigma and injury,” “deprives dignity,” “diminishes personhood,” and “works a grave and continuing harm to gays and lesbians.” Correspondingly, a core conviction underlying same-sex marriage and Obergefell is that there is no meaningful difference between male-female and same-sex relationships. The sex of one’s marital partner is simply a matter of personal choice, incidental to the meaning and significance of the marriage itself. Such decision is no different than a woman deciding who she will marry between James and John. Vital to same-sex marriage is the insistence that man-woman and same-sex unions are themselves “the same.” Any other perspective, acknowledging the different character of the joining of the two sexes, is “demeaning, hurtful, etc.”
The attribution of such dehumanizing harms to the understanding of marriage as a uniquely male-female union was at the essence of Obergefell and, arguably, its most significant effect.
In that regard, Obergefell functioned as a theological and moral treatise, referring to transcendence, meaning, love, sacrifice, devotion, freedom, intimacy, and spirituality. It was practically a religious declaration, rooted in particular views of life and purpose and human well-being.