One of the least noticed sentences in U.S. District Judge Vaughn Walker’s ruling that rejected California Proposition 8 observed, “Marriage in the United States has always been a civil matter.” This means, among other things, that “Religious authorities may determine independently whether to recognize a civil marriage or divorce, but that recognition or lack thereof has no effect on the relationship under state law.”
This well grounded summary of long-established legal principles, enshrined in the First Amendment, should provide a back-handed balm and reassurance to those who believe that marriage is an estate ordained of God, which unites a man and a woman. It may, or may not, be finally established as constitutional law in this country that same sex couples have a right to marry. Whether it is or not, no church is obligated to recognize such a marriage.
If any level of government dictated to a church what does and does not constitute marriage, that would infringe the free exercise of religion. It would also constitute an establishment of religion, since the government would be deciding for the church what exactly God had ordained. Because of this twin constitutional consideration, federal courts have developed and firmly applied the legal principle of church autonomy in matters of faith and doctrine.
Understanding this separation might also calm the fears of some gay rights organizations, who have expressed fierce hostility toward the Roman Catholic Church, the Southern Baptist Convention, the LDS Church, the Missouri and Wisconsin synod Lutheran churches, and other denominations which continue to teach that homosexuality is inherently disordered, or that homosexual conduct is spiritually and doctrinally unacceptable.
Some of these churches actively seek to bring civil law in line with their spiritual doctrines, while others are content to maintain the purity of doctrine within their own institution. None of them have any legal standing to determine civil law under our constitution. Neither does the state have authority to determine what is sound doctrine.
Arguments defending the way that state laws, until the last twenty years or so, routinely defined marriage, have been weakened by failure to recognize this separation. One argument after another has focused on what a state’s “rational basis” might be to limit marriage to heterosexual couples. There is no rational basis, as Judge Walker ruled. “Moral disapproval alone is an improper basis on which to deny rights to gay men and lesbians.”
Accordingly, if there IS an argument to made regarding civil law, it must present a different basis than moral disapproval. Likewise, if there IS an argument to be made within a church for accepting same-sex couples as a sanctified marriage, it is not enough to urge that “it’s legal now.” These are distinct questions. Church and state do not have to agree. In fact, those who are “in the world but not of the world” might be expected to agree with the state rather seldom.