The Collision of Two Societies

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

As most of you already know, in mid-May a divided California Supreme Court ruled that denying same-sex couples the right to legally marry is unconstitutional.  While that was controversial for many reasons, one related news story in particular caught my eye.

After the Supreme Court’s decision, San Diego County Clerk Gregory Smith said he would consider allowing clerks in his county to not process same-sex marriages if they had moral or religions objections.

Reuters reported that Gavin Newsom, the often colorful mayor of San Francisco, was quick to condemn Mr. Smith’s failure to fall in line behind the Court’s decision.  “I was pretty shocked about all that, candidly, and pretty outraged,” Newsom told Reuters in an interview.  “This is a civil marriage that civil servants have a responsibility to provide, so for civil servants on religious grounds to start passing judgments, they, I think, are breaking the core tenet of what civil service is all about.”  And, apparently mocking those who have moral qualms about gay marriage, he continued, “I’ve got very strong religious beliefs.  So now, all of a sudden, I don’t have to do certain things, even though that’s my responsibility as mayor?”

Mr. Newsom even went so far as to suggest that clerks who refused to marry gays in California should lose their jobs.  “If that is their job and they are going to be able to pick and choose based on their morality, then all of a sudden they are not doing their jobs…If you don’t want to provide a marriage certificate and you’ve got a job that does that, then you should think twice about why you got the job in the first place and maybe you should get a new job.”

And in a purely logical way, Mayor Newsom is right.  Civil servants are hired to execute the law, not interpret it selectively.  Police officers, letter carriers, school teachers, and county employees of all sorts, by virtue of their jobs, need to consistently uphold the law of the land.

But the mayor’s remarks reflect the looming collision of two societies that is beginning to take place all around us, a collision between the church and the state, between religious folks and secular folks.  The California Supreme Court decision raises some fundamental questions that we must address.  Like, what happens when a Christian’s conscience is at odds with the law of the land?  What happens when the church’s enshrined beliefs and practices become a stench to the government’s enshrined beliefs and practices?  (We have already seen this play out with the controversy surrounding pharmacists and the “morning-after” pill as well as Catholic Charities quitting adoption in Massachusetts following the gay marriage decision back in 2003.)

As a pastor–and as someone who loves my country and the church–I am a little worried about the direction of the marriage debate these days.  Although Mayor Newsom’s rebuke was for civil servants in particular, is it a stretch to believe that similar condemnations will eventually come for other representatives of the state (and common citizens, for that matter) who refuse to participate in government policies based on religious objections? 

From the beginning of our country, there has been a cozy partnership in officializing marriages between the church and state, and clergy are credentialed by their states to perform weddings as representatives of the state.  And when church and state share congruent convictions about marriage, things are fine.  But what happens when the church and state don’t share congruent convictions about marriage?  This is where the sparks fly–when citizens’ religious freedom collides with citizens’ civil rights and personal freedom. 

If gay marriage eventually becomes the norm in the United States, which seems quite plausible, what will happen to churches and clergy who refuse to participate (which, I contend, would be the vast majority)?  Will they be officially labeled as bigots and marginalized?  Will they lose their tax-exempt and privileged status in our society?  Will there develop “civil weddings” that happen at the courthouse and that are distinct from “religious weddings” that happen in the context of the church? 

At very least we need to have a serious conversation about the extent of religious freedom and how it interacts with personal, civil rights.  As Christians, however, we need to remember that we belong ultimately to a society that is not the same as the United States.  Certainly, we need to be good citizens of our country, but we Christians finally answer to a higher calling.  The apostle Paul, addressing Christians in the cosmopolitan city of Philippi, reminded the believers there that “our citizenship is in heaven.” (Philippians 3:20)  And Jesus declared openly to the Roman governor that his “kingdom is not of this world.” (John 18:36) 

So, in the mean time, until that kingdom comes in its fullness, we need to ask some serious questions about our religious freedom in America and work actively to protect our liberties in this great country.


5 thoughts on “The Collision of Two Societies

  1. I think that, while Mayor Newsom’s remark was somewhat inflammatory, his message essentially is appropriate.

    While we have a religious nation, our government remains secular. And should continue to do so, not only for the sake of Christians, but for people of all faiths. Were any government employee to refuse service to a woman because she was not wearing a burka (for example) in public…would you not be outraged? Yet a case could be made that, as a Muslim, that person would be well within their religious rights to do so.

    The law should allow the greatest freedom for the largest number of citizens possible while respecting the rights of as many as possible. In this case, a civil servant can, I think, remain a good Christian and adhere to his/her belief while still performing their duties. I would also point out that, in many ways, people of all faiths are tested when performing acts in the name of their government. This is a choice each person must reconcile with themselves when they choose employment with a government agency. “Will my duties be in keeping with my moral compass?” It is not the government’s responsibility to maintain that moral direction, but the personal responsibility of each citizen.

    God’s law may be above man’s, but as a society, we need to adhere to our laws as well to maintain peace and order and to provide for the welfare for all our citizens. Gay people are still people, still citizens. And as such, deserve the same right as any other citizen.

    ~ an idealistic atheist.

  2. Leftcoastlibrul,
    Thanks for your thoughtful comment. I can’t say I disagree with anything you said. My overall concern is not projecting a specifically Christian viewpoint on the government (as many conservatives try to do) at the expense of other faiths. But I believe it is paramount to preserve religious freedom, even when those religious viewpoints are not popular in our secular society. This is–and will continue to be–a hot topic. Not that I am advocating polygamy at all, but the polygamist Mormon sect that was raided in Texas this spring is probably another good example: Where do we draw the line between their right to practice their faith and the government’s sovereignty and duty to enforce the law?
    Thanks again,

  3. Ray;
    Thank you as well for the response.

    Although it crosses over into philosophy, I believe the quote “your rights end where mine begin” is an apt one. Everyone has a right to exercise their religious belief…until it infringes on the rights of another person. What that constitutes may well be subjective in nature, but in this case I believe it is clearer. A person’s right to marry should not be impeded by another person’s religious belief. There should be a compromise of some sort reached (if no other, find a clerk who does not object on religious grounds).

  4. Very tolerant, Jon. Tell me. When did you stop being a Christian? As the hate that fills that article certainly doesn’t follow anything He taught.

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