Mercy and Justice(s) and Same-Sex Marriage

The Supreme Court is hearing two cases about same-sex marriage this week.  One is on the constitutionality of California’s marriage definition, the other is about whether the federal government may or must not recognize same-sex marriages which are recognized by individual states. The LDS church was heavily involved in getting members to oppose same-sex marriage in California, and it closely watched the development of our federal Defense of Marriage Act (after having spent significant time and effort helping states craft their own DOMA laws). While cameras and live updates are prohibited inside the courtroom, audio and transcripts of the Prop 8 proceedings are here; audio and transcripts of the DOMA proceedings are here.

So what will happen after the hearings are over and the decision is made public in the next few months? Will Mormons have to perform same-sex marriages? Will they have to allow same-sex couples into their congregations? Will they close temples in California if same-sex marriage becomes legal?

Part of the campaign propaganda during the Proposition 8 debates in California included the threat that temples would close. The Church was (and still is) against same-sex marriage, and (so the theory went) if it were to become legal (again) in California, the Brethren would close temples there rather than allow themselves to be forced into performing same-sex marriages.

Could that really happen? We need only look at fully functioning temples in places where same-sex marriages are already legal to figure out whether legalizing same-sex marriages results in temple closures: Canada (8 operating temples, 1 under construction), Massachusetts (1 temple), New York (2 temples) Washington state (1 temple), Washington, DC (1 temple), Connecticut (1 temple under construction), Mexico City (1 temple), Oaxaca, Mexico (1 temple), The Netherlands (1 temple), Spain (1 temple), South Africa (1 temple), Denmark (1 temple), Sweden (1 temple), Portugal (1 temple), Argentina (1 operating temple, 1 under construction), and Brazil (in its federal district plus the states of Alagoas, Bahia, and the city of São Paulo (1 temple)). Given that so many temples are operating peacefully (and even being newly constructed even after same-sex marriages became legal within their temple districts) Are California’s seven operating temples threatened with closure if same-sex marriage becomes legal again? Not likely. If it hasn’t happened yet in any of these other jurisdictions, odds are that temple-business-as-normal will continue.

Some argue that allowing same-sex marriages to happen will curtail religious freedom. In the United States, religious freedom (including rights of speech and association), is shielded by our Bill of Rights. Clergy are not forced to solemnize any marriages that are outside of their particular orthodoxies. Churches are not forced to admit into their congregations just anyone who shows up on their doorsteps. Even when non-discrimination laws apply, such as those prohibiting discrimination based on gender or race, religious groups are not required to throw open doors of either ordination or acceptance. Even our own history reminds us that until 1978, black men and women were denied access to temples because of the priesthood ban.

Of course, while religious people are allowed to believe what they want and speak out as they feel the need to within the walls of their religious institutions, there is no protection for them from the slings and arrows of those who oppose that discrimination. A small Midwestern Baptist church may come and picket at a funeral all it likes, so long as it complies with local ordinances regarding picketing, but that does not give its members freedom from counter-demonstrations, and there are no laws saying everyone else must refrain from calling them bigots merely because they invoke God’s name in their efforts. Pastors in the Deep South may refuse to marry mixed-race couples, but those practices may still be critiqued by the news media.

So, at least in the United States, Mormons likely will not see religious rights (or rites) curtailed by any laws allowing the state to recognize same-sex marriages solemnized by other religious observers or by civil justices of the peace. There is always a chance that the state could deny Mormon bishops or other priesthood holders the right to perform marriages at all, but we have plenty of precedent for how to handle that: Just lie back and think of England (where the legal marriage is completely separate from the religious sealing).

The bigger question for Mormons, though, is, “What will we do when legally married same-sex couples come into our congregations?” Or, “Can legally married same-sex couples even become members?”  Our law of chastity is one of no sex before marriage and complete fidelity after a legal and lawful marriage. And yet, even when a marriage is legal under civil law, it may be grounds for keeping one out of the waters of baptism.

For instance, when missionaries come upon investigators living in legal polygamous marriages, say, in Uganda, according to a former mission president there, they must teach the families that “No man can be baptized who is living with more than one woman, … but a polygamist can join if he divorces all but one wife. He can continue to support the others as long as he doesn’t live with them as husband and wife.”

Another way to handle the question is to postpone action on it, as was done in Brazil prior to 1978: Prior to 1978, at least some missionaries in Brazil used door approaches geared toward weeding out anyone with black African ancestry.  They would share family photos and ask to see the photos of potential investigators, and if there were questions about racial ancestry, missionaries shared an uplifting message and then left, never broaching the subject of baptism.

Neither of these solutions seems reasonable – divorce your spouse(s)? Avoid a baptism altogether and leave it for sorting out  “in the eternities”?

If there is a congregation welcoming enough of a legally married same-sex couple convert or two (and such congregations do exist, with more joining the ranks oh, so slowly) perhaps those same-sex couples might find themselves like those in so many Catholic countries where divorce (and therefore remarriage) is not yet recognized by law: Attending church and participating in part, but unable to enjoy the full benefits and responsibilities of membership.

No matter what the Supreme Court says this time around, the church will not be required to solemnize same-sex marriages.  It will not be required to grant membership to same-sex couples.

But as Christians we are required to not just extend a hand of fellowship, but to “Love one another as I have loved you.” During this Easter season, as we remember the last week of our Savior’s life, we are reminded that he sat down to eat – knowingly – with those who would betray him and forsake him. And not only did he eat with them, he washed their feet – he served them and cared for them tenderly, doing the most menial of tasks in a supreme act of love and mercy.

No matter what the Supreme Court decides, no matter what the pundits and analysts say, it will not change the fact that we are all brothers and sisters and everyone deserves love, dignity and respect. It will not change the fact that we are called here for a reason, and no matter what the future brings, each answer should begin with the question, “How can I best show love to this neighbor? How can I be in community with the people around me to create Zion here and now?”