As statewide same-sex marriage proposals gain momentum, some conservative church pastors across the country fear facing lawsuits effectively forcing them to marry same-sex couples.
For Joe Carr, the pastor of Waynesville Missionary Baptist Church in Georgia, “it’s just a matter of time.” According to Carr, “What’s happening in Europe – we’re going to see happen here.” Carr is perhaps referring to an ongoing lawsuit in France for a mayor’s refusal to abide by federal law and marry two men. In response, many churches are adding to their constitutions explicit provisions prohibiting the officiating of same-sex weddings.
However, some legal experts consider these fears unwarranted and these actions excessive.
“The U.S. Constitution already guarantees the right of churches to decide which sacraments they wish to perform and whom they want to include in these rituals, including weddings,” says Barry Lynn, executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State. “So these additions to church constitutions are unnecessary.”
Then again, this is not entirely true. Similar to same-sex marriage bans, prohibitions on interracial marriage, or anti-miscegenation laws, were ruled unconstitutional and many churches faced lawsuits for refusing to marry interracial couples. As recent as 2009, a church in Louisiana faced a lawsuit for refusing to marry an interracial couple on the grounds that the children would be alienated by both blacks and whites.
Eventually, however, these charges were dropped. Indeed, most churches successfully defend themselves by defending their right to refuse service in accordance with their conscience. It comes off as authoritarian to force a church to practice what is preaches against.
Yet, lawsuits against churches, even if they fail, take time in court and money for judicial fees. Merely the threat of a lawsuit can strong-arm a church into kowtowing to public pressure.
Finally, some consider the precedent set by letting churches refuse service to certain groups. Churches, like restaurants, are private institutions. Yet restaurants are not allowed to refuse service to customers on the basis of race or sexual orientation. Should churches be held to a different standard?
Churches might counter that refusing to marry two men is not refusing service to a specific group but rather refusing a specific service.
Time will tell whether some churches’ fear is justified.