Should the Government Force Individuals to Celebrate Gay Weddings?

The Story:

Imagine that you, a wedding photographer, are asked to attend a gay wedding in order to capture vibrant images of the couple’s nuptials and the ensuing celebration. Would you, in good conscience, be able to offer your services to the couple, even though your religious beliefs would prevent you from considering the marriage legitimate? Would the acceptance of such an offer be the equivalent of celebrating, affirming, or participating in a union you believe to be inherently sinful?

These are the questions that have arisen — inevitably — for bakers, florists, photographers, and others as a result of the legalization of gay marriage in 17 states, plus Washington, D.C.

Sticking with the case in which you are a wedding photographer, there are two possible decisions that could be made in response to the invitation.

Suppose, for a moment, that you agree to photograph the couple’s ceremony, viewing the entire enterprise purely as a business transaction devoid of any moral implications. You consider yourself an unbiased and uninterested outsider who is merely doing what you do for a living — taking pictures — regardless of the moral status of your subjects. After all, as a wedding photographer, you don’t take a lurid interest in the personal affairs of others. While you are setting up the perfect shot on your Canon EOS 5d Mark II, you have absolutely no interest in whether the heterosexual couple is unequally yoked, whether they were cohabiting before they said “I do,” or whether the middle-aged husband divorced his first wife because of “irreconcilable differences.”

In defense of your decision to photograph the wedding ceremony, you think of biblical passages that record those instances in which Jesus dined with tax collectors and sinners. No one — except for the scribes and Pharisees — really thought that Jesus was condoning their sin, which he clearly denounced. Furthermore, Jesus said, “Even the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Mark 10:45). You collect your fee and go back to your office to edit the photos before your next scheduled appointment.

Your second option as the wedding photographer is to decline the gay couple’s invitation. You are a firm believer in the conjugal conception of marriage, defined as the comprehensive, exclusive, and permanent union between a man and a woman who commit to raising their children together. This, you believe, is the only type of marriage that is sanctioned by God and recognized as a sacred union (Genesis 2:24; Matthew 19:4-12). You would hate to think that your involvement in the wedding proceedings would be viewed, albeit mistakenly, as a wholesale condoning of the couple’s union, which you think is inherently marred by the couple’s immoral sexual relationship.

Remembering the words of Paul (“Try to find out what is pleasing to the Lord. Take no part in the worthless deeds of evil and darkness; instead, rebuke and expose them” [Eph. 5:10-11]), you decide that you cannot support the couple at the ceremony, even if your “support” begins and ends with the click of a camera while you stand at a distance. While you love the couple (for they too are human beings created in the image of God) and recommend another skilled photographer who can take your place, you respectfully decline their offer, preferring not to violate your deeply held religious convictions.

The Debate:

Over the past week, Christian thinkers have debated 1) which course of action is proper for believers to take in the situation just described, and 2) what role the state should play in the decision-making of individuals and businesses whose services are requested by gay couples.

In a controversial column that appeared in USA Today over the weekend, Kirsten Powers expressed relief that a religious freedom bill that passed the House of Representatives in Kansas did not survive the state Senate. The bill, which is similar to those currently being proposed in Ohio, Mississippi, Idaho, South Dakota, Tennessee, and Oklahoma, would have allowed individuals and businesses to deny service to same-sex couples based on their religious beliefs.

Incredulous that Christians would so willingly back such “discriminatory” legislation, Powers thunderously denounces the hypocritical efforts of Christians to publicly vilify some sins (namely, homosexual unions) while tolerating others. In a column in the Daily Beast, Jonathan Merritt says that Christians seeking consistency in application should also object to participation not only in gay unions but also in heterosexual marriages that involve two people mired in sin or motivated by impure desires (as if these would be evident to casual observers). Powers considers such picking and choosing of sins to be antithetical to the gospel, since Jesus willingly served all people and gave his life for all people, even when they were still sinners.

Powers quotes megachurch pastor Andy Stanley, who writes that it is “offensive that Christians would leverage faith to support the Kansas law. … Serving people we don’t see eye to eye with is the essence of Christianity. Jesus died for a world with which he didn’t see eye to eye. If a bakery doesn’t want to sell its products to a gay couple, it’s their business. Literally. But leave Jesus out of it.”

On the other side of the debate are Christians who would conscientiously object to anything that even resembles the celebration of a union that is inherently sinful. They insist they are not acting hypocritically by protesting the union of gay couples rather than any couple whose union is, in some way, unseemly.

First of all, gay marriage is very clearly opposed to the biblical definition of marriage. Furthermore, even though sexual sin is pervasive and the majority of heterosexual couples have — at some point or another — acted in violation of scriptural principles, as we all have, it is unreasonable to expect wedding photographers, florists, and bakers to investigate every union, to find out whether they are biblical or unbiblical, and then to offer or withdraw their services.

Eric Teetsel, writing in First Things, remarks, “As servants of the Gospel, we have no choice but to fight doggedly for a culture that enables every human being to experience the abundant life God promises. … The tragic irony is that proponents of no-holds-barred sexuality are condemning others to a life of bondage. My conviction is that I ought to have no part in forging the slavers’ chains.” This refusal to aid the furthering of a sinful (and therefore, harmful) association is why Christian individuals and business owners are seeking exemption from anti-discrimination laws.

What’s at Stake in This Debate?

Since the decision about whether or not to participate in a gay marriage ceremony is rightfully left to the dictates of an individual Christian’s conscience, it is somewhat shocking that Christians (Powers and Merritt, for example) would stump so forcefully for state interference in a matter in which the individual should be answerable to God, not man. Religious liberty — the first freedom of Americans — demands that the state respect private and public expressions of religious faith.

If businesses object to gay marriage, they are, in effect, penalizing themselves by limiting their range of customers and forgoing potential profits. Plus, gay couples are free to visit another baker or florist who would gladly serve them. Thus, there is no reason for the government to threaten individuals or businesses with legal penalties for violating anti-discrimination laws.

Nicole Miller, attorney for a baker in Colorado who has been taken to court, says, “Everybody knows that the First Amendment protects you from having to violate your conscience. While someone may enjoy rights [like nondiscrimination protections] … it doesn’t necessarily trump the right of someone’s conscience to abstain from something they find morally reprehensible.”

Frank Schubert, political director for the National Organization for Marriage , told Time, “Unfortunately, same-sex marriage advocates have increasingly treated people who believe in traditional marriage as the legal equivalent of bigots and even racists. … Therefore, legislation like this in Kansas becomes necessary to assure that people are not forced to personally be part of something they cannot in good conscience support. There are plenty of people willing to serve a gay marriage ceremony without having to force everyone to do so.”

Religious freedom legislation, like the one just defeated in Kansas and the one in Arizona that was  vetoed by Gov. Jan Brewer this week, would not simply pertain to photographers, bakers, and ministers who oppose gay marriage, but to adoption agencies that would subsequently be freed from having to place children in same-sex households. Additionally, religious freedom laws would prevent privately owned businesses from providing employment benefits for same-sex couples. Thus, anyone who, due to religious convictions, declined to treat same-sex marriages as valid — regardless of its legality — would not be coerced by the government to do so.

The religious liberty section of the Manhattan Declaration reads: “No one should be compelled to embrace any religion against his will, nor should persons of faith be forbidden to worship God according to the dictates of conscience or to express freely and publicly their deeply held religious convictions.”

Russell D. Moore, defending the rights of conscientious objectors, says Christians should care about religious liberty issues because “the lives and livelihoods of real people are on the line, all because they won’t render unto Caesar (or to Mammon) that which they believe belongs to God.” He raises a good question: “Should a Christian (or Muslim or Orthodox Jewish or feminist New Age) web designer be compelled to develop a site platform for a legal pornography company?”

Religious and moral objections are not minor, simple, or irrelevant. Christians ought to stand firm in their support of religious liberty, because faith is not merely a private, subjective matter that can be sidestepped whenever it proves convenient. Worldviews — the silent shapers of our thought — determine our actions in every realm of life, public and private, and we should be free to express them. So, contrary to the Merritt-Powers argument, it is important that we defend the conscience rights of individuals who feel they are acting immorally by sanctioning a lifestyle they believe is not only contrary to scripture but also harmful to a well-ordered society.

Biblical Insights:

What is the best way to gently testify to truth and bring people to repentance? (Matthew 9:9-13)

“As Jesus passed on from there, he saw a man named Matthew sitting at the tax office. And he said to him, ‘Follow me.’ So he arose and followed him. Now it happened, as Jesus sat at the table in the house, that, behold, many tax collectors and sinners came and sat down with him and his disciples. And when the Pharisees saw it, they said to his disciples, ‘Why does your Teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?’

“When Jesus heard that, he said to them, ‘Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. But go and learn what this means: ‘I desire mercy and not sacrifice.’ For I did not come to call the righteous, but sinners, to repentance’” (Matthew 9:9-13).

Powers, Merritt, and Stanley emphasize Jesus’ willingness to serve sinners. Indeed, Jesus, one in being with the Father, condescended to man, emptying himself in order to eat with, talk with, walk with, and ultimately die for sinful human beings. Unquestionably, every person on earth with whom Jesus came in contact was a sinner, who threatened to sully the untarnished perfection of our creator made flesh. Yet Jesus came to earth with one mission in mind — to call sinners to repentance. And, as Jesus remarks to the scribes and Pharisees, how could Jesus effectively proclaim his message (“repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand!”) if he were to spend time only with the righteous, who have already repented?

So, while it is evident that Jesus perceived fellowship with sinners as a necessary element of his mission on earth, it is also wise for us to consider how Jesus went about doing this.

In this passage, Jesus walks into a tax collector’s office and invites Matthew to follow him. Notice that there is nothing inherently sinful about the tax collector’s office. By declaring that we should give to God what is God’s and to Caesar what is Caesar’s, Jesus recognizes the legitimacy of both the state and its means of attaining revenue. The reason tax collectors had such a bad reputation is that they would overcharge citizens and they would accept bribes. Thus, tax collectors were maligned because of their illegitimate actions within a legitimate framework.

Similarly, a wedding photographer who serves at a wedding in which both participants have previously been divorced for unbiblical reasons is not being hypocritical, for he is participating in a legitimate endeavor, even though, within that construct, the couple may not be acting morally. On the other hand, a gay marriage is an illegitimate institution that does not have the blessing of scripture and the sanction of God, as does traditional marriage.

Furthermore, when Jesus is dining with tax collectors and sinners, he is at a house. The tax collectors and sinners come to him. Sometimes, we think of Jesus walking through alleys and dark walkways where notoriously villainous behavior occurs, so that Jesus can associate with and save the most wayward among us. But, in most cases, those sinners come to Jesus.

When Jesus defends the prostitute, whom the scribes and Pharisees want to put to death, by saying, “Let he who is without sin cast the first stone,” the prostitute was brought to him. When Jesus is speaking with the woman at the well, who had been divorced five times and was currently living with another man, he is conversing and ministering to a woman who came to him, who met him by the well where he had been sitting. Even when Jesus is at the house of Zacchaeus, he only went because Zacchaeus sought him out and invited him to his home, where he repented of his sins and committed himself to holy living.

Apparently, then, Jesus, while he did associate with sinners, never put himself in a situation in which it might appear that he was sanctioning the immoral activity in which they engaged.

In Ephesians 5:7-14, Paul says, “Don’t participate in the things these people do. For though your hearts were once full of darkness, now you are full of light from the Lord, and your behavior should show it! For this light within you produces only what is good and right and true. Try to find out what is pleasing to the Lord. Take no part in the worthless deeds of evil and darkness; instead, rebuke and expose them. It is shameful even to talk about the things that ungodly people do in secret. But when the light shines on them, it becomes clear how evil these things are. And where your light shines, it will expose their evil deeds. This is why it is said, ‘Awake, O sleeper, rise up from the dead, and Christ will give you light.’”

Jesus was famously forthcoming in his frank assessment of sin. He tolerated none of it, even while he actively sought to save sinners. Paul tells us to follow Christ’s example in passionately abiding by the truth.

As Christ followers, we should be respectful, gentle, kind, and loving as we express our biblically-based disapproval of gay marriage. Still, we should find ways in which we can, in good conscience, reach out to those with whom we disagree, in order to love them, serve them, and guide them toward the truth revealed by God in scripture, which is the path to human fulfillment.

And whether we, if we were put in such a situation, would or would not provide services at a gay wedding, we should protect the conscience rights of American citizens and refuse to allow our government to force our participation in an affair we believe to be harmful to the couple and society.