Roundtable: How Will Same-Sex Marriage Impact the Adventist Church? Part 4

(Spectrumbot) #1

On April 28, 2015, the Supreme Court heard arguments on whether states can ban same-sex marriages, and if so, whether states that ban same-sex marriages must recognize same-sex marriages from states that perform them in the case Obergefell v. Hodges. The Seventh-day Adventist Church filed an amicus brief on March 6 with a law firm that specializes in free exercise of religion issues from a conservative Christian perspective: Brief of the General Conference of Seventh-Day Adventists and the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty as Amici Curiae in Support of Neither Party.

Todd McFarland, Associate General Counsel for the General Conference, who helped draft the brief, explained in the Adventist Review, the brief does not support either party litigating the case before the Court because the case does not present a religious or religious liberty question directly. But the brief presents the Adventist Church as a "conscientious objector" to same-sex marriage whose rights must be safeguarded, should the Court find a constitutional right to same-sex marriage. The Church seems to think that the Court will rule in favor of marriage equality, so the brief presumes a post-decision landscape, and discusses the rights of conservative religious groups against that backdrop.

In this edition of the Spectrum Roundtable, four Adventist Religious Liberties thought leaders discuss the implications of Obergefell v. Hodges. -Ed.

If I were a Supreme Court Justice, and I had to decide on gay marriage, and all I could rely on were the oral arguments made to the Court this week, I would almost certainly vote in favor. This is bad news for supporters of traditional marriage, as I have been a vocal supporter and advocate for the traditional position over the last decade. But the arguments made this week for traditional marriage seemed, in my view, quite self-defeating and contradictory.

Before I detail the shortcomings of these arguments, let me mention a couple of glimmers of hope for traditional marriage. First, the Court is not limited to the facts and arguments made at oral argument. The main parties filed hundreds of pages of briefs. In addition, various outside parties have filed a record 148 friend-of-the-court briefs, with 58 supporting the traditional position. Surely amidst this pile of paper are some careful, thoughtful, and evidence-based arguments about the importance of a mother and a father to the nurture and development of children, as well as the importance of state policies in encouraging and protecting those relationships.

Second, a couple of the swing-vote revealed that they still have questions over the issue. Justice Kennedy is generally understood to be the main swing vote on the issue. He has voted for gay rights in the past, but his reasoning has suggested that his support might not extend to marriage.

His questions revealed some of this uncertainty. He pointed to the short period of time gay marriage has been seriously considered, "10 years is, I don't even know how to count the decimals when we talk about millennia. This [traditional] definition has been with us for millennia. And it ­­ it's very difficult for the Court to say, oh, well, we ­­ we know better."

More surprisingly, Justice Breyer—generally considered a firm pro-gay vote—voiced a similar question: "[traditional marriage] has been the law everywhere for thousands of years among people who were not discriminating even against gay people, and suddenly you want nine people outside the ballot box to require States that don't want to change what marriage is to include gay people. Why cannot those States at least wait and see whether in fact doing so in the other States is or is not harmful to marriage?"

Now, both these justices also asked hard and pointed questions of the traditional side, so these questions do not tip their hands as to the direction they are leaning. But at a minimum, they do suggest that one or two centrist minds on the Court are not entirely made up, and that the result is not a foregone conclusion.

But, I am quite pessimistic about that eventual result. And it has to do in good part with the weak showing in the oral argument. The counsel for the state of Michigan, who was defending the state’s traditional marriage statute, rested his entire argument on the view that gay marriage is bad for children.

Now, this is not a poor argument in itself, as many studies show that, for optimum development, children do better with the influence of both a mother and a father. But he did not cite these studies, or even really make this argument. Rather, he argued that the acceptance of gay marriage will disconnect, in the popular mind, marriage from pro-creation and child-raising, thus leading to the birth and rearing of more children outside of marriage.

Now, this claim may or may not be true. There is insufficient data in the U.S., as gay marriage is so new, to prove it one way or the other. But the simple fact is that this philosophical shift has already largely occurred, prior to and outside of gay marriage. This adult-satisfaction-centered marriage is a result and symptom, and possible partial cause, of the sexual revolution of the 60s and 70s. At that time, the rise of birth control and the spread of a self-centered hedonism took the public’s focus off the health of the family unit and transferred it to the satisfaction and actualization of adults.

To blame the gay community for this fundamental shift in outlook is myopic and ahistorical; it is a symptom, rather than a cause of this change. Indeed, the gay community’s attempt to enter into long-term marriage relationships could be seen as mitigating against this self-focused, individualistic construct. (Indeed, that is why marriage itself is controversial within the gay community; some vocal factions oppose it, and many gay persons do not marry for these reasons.)

But those gay persons who do want to enter into marriage can plausibly argue that such a step strengthens the bonds and duration of their relationships, and that this is actually good for kids. The fact is, as the court noted, there are hundreds of thousands of children being raised by gay couples. Their family bonds would be strengthened and made more enduring by gay marriage, and this would actually achieves the goals that Michigan is concerned about, in strengthening families for children. The argument that this practical support of children is outweighed by a purported, but yet unseen, “philosophical shift” in the public mind regarding marriage and pro-creation seems a thin reed, indeed, for the Court to rest on in denying gay’s the right to marry.

So why do I think that the Court should protect and preserve the traditional definition of marriage? Well, I too agree that it is about the children, and preserving an optimum environment for their upbringing. But I think there is much more support for the notion that children do much, much better with the care and attention of both a mother and a father.

A number of very recent studies, as well as older studies, have shown the importance to child rearing of both genders. Yes, of course, we have many single-parent homes, but in these instances it is recognized that there is a lack that needs to be provided for. Big brother programs, men at boy scouts and at church, uncles and grandfathers, are all enlisted to play the role of the missing father (and 80% of the time, it is the father that is missing.)

But once gay marriage is recognized, there will be now a legal presumption, and increasingly a popular assumption, that these are fully adequate child-rearing environments. Society will assume that little boys can grow into well-rounded men without the benefit of masculine influence; that little girls can become mature women without feminine nurture and guidance.

This is an unsafe, and even foolish assumption that goes against the common experiences of those raised by a mother and a father—and who cannot imagine choosing between them; or those raised by single parents—and who feel very deeply the lack of the “other” parent in their lives. Increasingly, children raised by gay parents are expressing their unhappiness at the lack of, usually, a father figure in their lives. Amicus briefs were even filed at the Supreme Court by such persons.

There is a reason that the Fifth Commandments calls for not only honor from child to parents, but that it specifies mother and father. In a patriarchal age where fathers had supreme command, it is remarkable—and a point for Christian feminism—that the commandment includes the mother as deserving equal honor.

But there is also a significant point for heterosexual marriage here. The duty of the child to honor assumes a corresponding right the child has to the nurture and protection of the complementary duo of mother and father. That right cannot always be realized in a fallen and sinful world, and one must fill the gaps as best as one can; but neither should that right be extinguished or disregarded as a matter of policy simply because of the subjective desires of those that cannot actually biologically produce children.

Now, I do not cite the Fifth Commandment as authority for the proposition that gay marriage should be rejected. That would be an inappropriate biblical argument for a matter of public policy. But I am noting that our most Ancient religious wisdom supports our historic, common-sense, intuitive, and empirical observations that men and woman are both crucial to the development and well-being of children.

I’ll conclude with one thought about the risks and dangers faced by the church should gay marriage be declared a national right. Justice Alito raised with the lawyer for the Justice Department the Bob Jones case, where the Supreme Court had stripped the tax-exempt status of a religious college. “So would the same apply,” Alito asked, “to a university or college if it opposed same-sex marriage?

The response by Donald Verrilli, Solicitor General for the United States, was telling: “It’s certainly going to be an issue. I – I don’t deny that . . . Justice Alito. It is – It is going to be an issue.”

An issue, indeed. The religious community has been alerted: religious institutions, at least colleges and universities, and very likely hospitals and health-care institutions, will be very much on the government’s radar in enforcing this newly found right, should the Court grant it. Standards relating to sexual behavior in terms of hiring, employment, admissions, student and faculty behavior, and even classroom teaching, would all come under close scrutiny and, very likely, eventual challenge. Institutions that stand firm would risk losing their tax-exempt status. In many instances, this would simply close their doors.

In 16th century England, the Protestant Reformation was announced and implemented by a “stripping of the altars,” a practice whereby state churches had Catholic vestments and icons removed from the church altars. We are coming to the point where a new, secular, “stripping of the altars” is being threatened; one that does not remove vestments and icons, but that “strips” institutions of either their core Christian identity, or their tax exempt status.

This Hobson’s choice should be a sobering thought, even for those that support gay marriage. Rather than “pluralism” and “tolerance”—which was what we were told the gay rights movement was about—there is much more “uniformity” and “intolerance” than in the system it seeks to replace. No responsible Christian thinker or organization that I know of has called for a loss of tax-exempt status for gay-friendly churches, schools, or organizations.

There has been a general sense of moral disagreement with gay groups and institutions by the Christian community. But that community has also largely understood that in a pluralistic country people have the right to hold and express those morally contrary views. Apparently, in our larger society, that principled tolerance is no longer seen as important or true.

What is at stake in this decision is more than gay marriage in particular, or gay rights generally; rather, it is also the fundamental right of moral disagreement with whatever conventional wisdom or wave of political correctness holds the political high ground. Today, that ground is held by gay rights and, apparently gay marriage. But tomorrow, who knows? Before one discards a system of principled, pluralistic tolerance, one should want to consider carefully what beasts and dragons might lie around the next corner, waiting to enforce their own intolerance.

Nicholas Miller, JD, PhD, is Professor of Church History and Director, International Religious Liberty Institute at Andrews University.

This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at

(Carolyn Parsons) #2

Tax exempt status is conferred by the government on institutions it sees to be a benefit to society. I think that some churches have lost sight of this foundational principle of tax exemption. If churches and religious organizations paid taxes like everyone else, then maybe they could be completely free to discriminate. Until then, they have a responsibility to society in exchange for all the benefits we provide.

(le vieux) #3

I doubt that you really mean that, since individuals and business pay taxes and are not allowed to discriminate (depending on how one defines “discriminate”).

(Carolyn Parsons) #4

I am speaking about the tax subsidy that church’s get, not organizing them as businesses. There is an entanglement between church and state when churches and ministers get tax subsidies.

(Paul Kevin Wells) #5

I think this may be a matter of semantics. However, with the exception of various municipal construction bonds, which are typically paid back and do not count as subsidies, I’m unaware of churches receiving “subsidies.” Do you, perhaps, have in mind vouchers for private school education? Otherwise I have no idea what you’re talking about.

(Paul Kevin Wells) #6

Just to make sure I’m following you correctly. Do you mean to imply that churches do not benefit society if they are at variance with popular will? If so, is this in any and all cases or does it vary depending on the issue at hand?

(Carolyn Parsons) #7

Tax exemption is basically a financial gift by the state to churches. A church has property tax exemptions, a minister has a parsonage exemption, a religious employer has an employment tax exemption and churches have automatic non-profit tax exemption. These exemptions are a subsidy because taxpayers support he organization by paying higher taxes to make up for taxes that are not paid.

I am saying that churches don’t benefit society when they close in on themselves and become increasingly isolated. In my local community, the SDA church is basically non-existent in the issues of homelessness, domestic violence, substance abuse and many other issues where the Catholic church has a large and visible impact on the community.

(Peter) #8

I commend Dr. Miller on acknowledging the probability that gay marriage will be expanded to the remaining minority of states that are denying it.

This has been a land where people of vastly different cultures and beliefs are brought together regardless of their differences of belief. Long live that America!

(Winona Winkler Wendth) #9
  1. We are talking about property tax, here—not income tax; 2. Churches are not the issue, although churches are assumed to benefit the community in which they operate, so tax relief is given on that basis—that the church is providing support that the community would have to pay for, otherwise, as well as an infrastructure to deliver it; 3. Other requirements obtain: We have many for-profit churches, especially in the south and midwest, whose business models to not comply with not-for-profit ones. These churches often do provide community support through their businesses or encouragement and support of congregants, but their pastors and staff, for example, earn disproportionate salaries or run tangential businesses supported by church donations. So the decisions made about the tax-exempt status of churches does not rest entirely on how much community service they provide; 4. No one brought up churches, per se, anyway (that I see here) only colleges, who receive federal support through student loans—that’s a very different situation, and even so, Title IX protects many of their gender-based policies. Even in the town I live in, we hear rattles about the local college’s being insular, not community-supportive, and not being a presence that benefits the town in any discernible way; even if it refiled exemption requests on the basis of being an extension of one of the local SDA churches, the amount of lost tax income on a very large percentage of town geography is so great that recurring threats to petition for removal of local property-exempt status are beginning to attract attention.

(Carolyn Parsons) #10

I think that you might be replying to my post and not @PaulKevinWells I brought up the whole package of tax benefits that churches receive.

This may be the idea behind the tax benefits, but in practice, I don’t see it in my community and many other communities I have lived in. Opening up once a week to distribute used clothing does not provide a benefit that would come close to making up for the property tax relief they receive in the local community. My local church does not provide any infrastructure either. The same it true for the majority of churches in the community. If a church takes the tax benefit, they have the moral responsibility to fulfill their part of the bargain.

In the case of this amicus brief, the church is spending considerable sums to file these briefs and fight in state legislatures against the rights and the well-being of LGBT members of the community. They are fighting to deny civil protections that LGBT families can receive that make their lives more stable. They are fighting against a benefit to the community.

(Winona Winkler Wendth) #11

My response was in reference to the Supreme Court’s question about religious colleges (I think—I got lost in this exchange). Ironically, statistically, the American constituency who wants to reduce benefits to the poor with the argument that they should be picked up by the private sector, don’t hold the private sector accountable. Local churches and civic organizations could not possibly pay for all community needs—a statistically average congregation would have to come up with thousands of dollars annually to care for those in need, including free health care clinics. Yes, churches have a moral responsibility to give back to the community services equal to the amount of taxes they are forgiven. The Unitarian Church does here, and the SDA churches are active in this tiny town, albeit to a great extent through services connected to evangelism, but not always just that. Not the local evangelical congregation. They should all read Winthrop’s “City on a Hill” speech right through to the end.

(jeremy) #12

once more, nick gets to the heart of the matter…the only suspense in the same-sex issue before the supreme court for adventism is our 501©3 status…

(Carolyn Parsons) #13

I don’t think that that the SDA church is at any risk of losing tax exempt status. Churches are given great deference in our laws and regulations and enjoy robust protections. To suggest that churches are at risk here is fear mongering.

(Paul Kevin Wells) #14

The comment I made was in reference to:

In many cases it is true that churches provide little to nothing in service to the community that can be measured in tangible terms. However, churches do provide a stabilizing influence in many areas and provide a great deal to the members and families associated with them. For instance many churches provide “soft” benefits such as counseling services in the form of premarital, financial, parenting, grief recovery, addictions and a host of other support groups. Other churches provide these and food, clothing and community assistance. Not all do this but enough do so that I’m not entirely convinced churches should lose the exemptions that they currently enjoy. I could be wrong. The amount of revenue, i.e. taxes, that municipalities lose out on because of property exemptions won’t necessarily cover the cost to society of providing for the many “soft” benefits of church activity.

(Carolyn Parsons) #15

Many of these benefits can be seen in financial terms as well. Counseling that is not provided by churches for low income and people in poverty would cost a public organization to provide. The stability that churches provide is a great benefit to the community. I have no issue with these benefits.

I still don’t see many services in my community. I live in a blue collar light industrial and agricultural center; “The Grass Seed Capitol of the World” as it is known. There is visible and obvious issues with homelessness related to substance abuse. There are no AA or NA meetings in SDA churches in this area, but the Catholic church hosts several. local SDA church does a good job with vacation bible school and Pathfinders and once a month they have a cooking class.

My issue is not with the idea of tax benefits to churches, my problem is the moral responsibility to the community that a church should provide if they take tax benefits. I don’t see an awareness of that responsibility.

(Winona Winkler Wendth) #16

Right.—we can’t put a price on many many services, let alone monetize all-around and general good influence, like community stability. But they should be accountable. Catholic charities are constantly fighting this battle, and, in many cases, fall in the face of some Government regulations when, maybe, they shouldn’t. Today, unless a church’s manual requires them to discriminate against certain peoples (and some do), they are obliged to follow policies of justice as they are recognized by the Government, whether they are run like businesses or operated as a service.

(Paul Kevin Wells) #17

Getting back to the original topic, i.e. the legality of homosexual marriage and its impact on the church, I think that it is going to be the law of the land either with this Supreme Court decision or another one sometime in the next five years. As a pastor I’m not particularly concerned with the law. As I tell members from time to time, regarding legal issues, Caesar is going to do what Caesar does.
What we should concern ourselves with, more than the theoretical gay couple coming to our church, is being the kind of church that attracts people as Christ did. The people drawn to Him were not the respectable people of the day.
The Social Gospel movement has demonstrated that it often sacrifices the Kingdom in the name of service. We certainly don’t want this to occur. However, Adventist churches need to really step up and demonstrate more concern for the immediate needs people are facing in this world before they try to get them ready for the next. When a person’s stomach is growling from hunger and their mind is spinning from anxiety about their children’s school clothes the sound of the Gospel message is muted in comparison.
Regarding homosexuals and marriage, it would seem to me, that we should really make our argument in support of traditional marriage by having healthy vibrant marriages. When we consider the divorce rate and instances of infidelity and the challenges couples are facing marriage really doesn’t look all that special in a lot of instances. It certainly doesn’t look like it’s the oasis in which to raise children as seemed to be one of the line of reasoning in support of traditional marriage.

(Carolyn Parsons) #18

[quote=“PaulKevinWells, post:17, topic:8292”]
When a person’s stomach is growling from hunger and their mind is spinning from anxiety about their children’s school clothes the sound of the Gospel message is muted in comparison.[/quote]

Beautifully said.

All marriages provide stability to the community and we all should be motivated to protect and improve marriage as an institution. Marriage between people of the same sex does nothing to degrade the institution. Bad marriages are bad, good marriages are good. All families, no matter their makeup, flourish in stable relationships.

(SurprisedByGrace) #19

“What is at stake in this decision is more than gay marriage in particular, or gay rights generally; rather, it is also the fundamental right of moral disagreement with whatever conventional wisdom or wave of political correctness holds the political high ground. Today, that ground is held by gay rights and, apparently gay marriage. But tomorrow, who knows? Before one discards a system of principled, pluralistic tolerance, one should want to consider carefully what beasts and dragons might lie around the next corner, waiting to enforce their own intolerance.”

This is truly the crux of the matter.

(Elaine Nelson) #20

Same sex marriage is here to stay no matter the church may say. Can the church afford to continue to ostracize such families with children they refuse to recognize equal to families in the traditional marriages? If so, they might as well write of all those children whose families are excluded for no apparent reason other than to stand on the church’s “moral principles”: principles that cannot be supported from Scripture any more than “tradition” which for centuries silently winked at slavery.

There can never be foresight on every change in society; but we are only limited to the present and same sex marriage has been legal in the Scandinavian nation which has demonstrated no problems in more than a decade. There’s a test case that can be studied.