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In February we celebrate Valentine's Day, or what Geoffrey Chaucer described as the day "when every bird cometh there to choose his mate," with a flourish of flowers and sweets and things that sparkle.

In actuality, Feb. 14 commemorates something a bit less romantic: the memory of Saint Valentine, who was imprisoned for presiding over the weddings of Christians forbidden to marry under Claudius II, Emperor of Rome, and later beaten with clubs and beheaded for refusing to deny Jesus Christ.

I could not shake that thought when I read about Frank Schaefer, a United Methodist Church pastor who was defrocked in 2013 for conducting a same-sex marriage ceremony of his son, in 2007. Such an action was prohibited by the Church's Book of Discipline.

The United Methodist Church forbids certain practices it deems "incompatible with Christian teachings." Among them, one cannot be a "self-avowed practicing homosexual" and join the ministry of the ordained; church funds cannot be used to "promote the acceptance of homosexuality"; and, ministers are prohibited from "performing same-sex wedding ceremonies."

In Mr. Schaefer's case, the rules required an ecclesiastical trial by jury, which was held in November of that year. The jury found him guilty and suspended him for 30 days. He was told to profess support for the Book of Discipline or resign. He did neither, and a few days before Christmas the Board of Ordained Ministry defrocked him. He was ultimately reinstated unanimously on appeal.

In 2013, the U.S. Supreme Court, in Windsor v. United States, declared the federal Defense of Marriage Act, an initiative of the Clinton administration, to be unconstitutional, and paved the way for same-sex couples to receive benefits equal to those of heterosexual couples in states that permit such marriages.

"By seeking to displace this protection and treating those persons as living in marriages less respected than others, the federal statute is in violation of the Fifth Amendment," then-Justice Anthony Kennedy, a Reagan appointee, wrote for the majority.

Two years later, in Obergefell v. Hodges, the Court made same-sex marriage legal in all 50 states. The Court observed, "No union is more profound than marriage, for it embodies the highest ideals of love, fidelity, devotion, sacrifice, and family. In forming a marital union, two people become something greater than once they were."

In 2004, 11 years before the Court's decision, I came to face to face with the legal and political issues surrounding same-sex marriage. I was 24 and fresh out of law school when, along with a partner in the law firm I was with at the time, I argued the case in the Arkansas Supreme Court against Amendment 83, a statewide ballot initiative that declared marriage to be between a man and woman. We lost that case 4-2, and the initiative passed overwhelmingly that November.

As essential as this legal history is, it is merely illustrative; the wall of separation between church and state allows each one of us to "profess freely and openly those principles of religion which are the inductions of his own reason and the serious convictions of his own inquiries," as Thomas Jefferson wrote in 1808.

The free exercise of religion can have a profound effect on the development of a values system and moral sensibility that shapes an individual's aesthetic. This is one reason why religion and politics' influence on the other is well documented in our national and world history.

I was 11 when I was confirmed at Pulaski Heights United Methodist in Little Rock. Twenty years later, in 2009, I was married to my wife in a quiet ceremony at dusk under an emblem of nature and remembering by a Methodist minister who acknowledged the great commandments: "Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind, and with all thy strength," and "thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself."

Today, there is palatable tension in Methodist denominations across the globe, just as there was when the church learned that Frank Schaefer had presided over the marriage ceremony of his son to another man. After a contentious general conference last February, 53 percent of church leaders and lay members voted to tighten the ban on same-sex marriage, declaring that "the practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching."

As a result, a group of leaders from the second largest Protestant denomination in the world developed a path toward separation. According to the negotiated plan, there would be a new "traditionalist Methodist" denomination that would continue to ban same-sex marriage as well as the ordination of gay and lesbian clergy; the moniker United Methodist Church would be used by the progressive wing. This May, the Methodists will meet at their global conference in Minneapolis to finalize and vote on the plan.

Today, nearly two-thirds of Methodists say homosexuality should be accepted.

In Washington, D.C., not far from where I live, Foundry United Methodist Church stands as one of the city's most prominent religious institutions. Thirty years ago, Foundry made religious rights for LGBTQ people core to its ministry. Foundry's pastors have married same-sex couples and hired gay clergy. They embraced LGBT rights long before others; today Foundry has more than 1,000 members, many of whom are young people.

Nationally, the United Methodist Church is populated disproportionately by people over the age of 50, which also skews membership more conservative politically. Still, a majority of Methodists believe the denomination should sanction same-sex marriage.

For centuries--and perhaps centuries to come--factions of Methodists will argue against interpretation. Right or not, strict adherence to canon will align traditionalists and conservatives, but will it grow the denomination? Not in America, where even young evangelicals want their church to evolve on the issue of marriage equality.

As an attorney, Supreme Court reasoning matters a great deal. In Obergefell, the Court observed, "In forming a marital union, two people become something greater than once they were ... . Their hope is not to be condemned to live in loneliness, excluded from one of civilization's oldest institutions. They ask for equal dignity in the eyes of the law. The Constitution grants them that right."

We purposefully separate decisions of faith and decisions of state, and I don't challenge the First Amendment in that regard. But as I have argued, faith and politics influence each other, and here and now it is the will of man and woman to be treated equally. There is nothing in the eyes of God that indicates people should live on opposite planes of dignity, of happiness, of love.

In the words of John Wesley, who founded Methodism in the 18th century, "What one generation tolerates, the next generation will embrace."

Blake Rutherford, formerly of Little Rock, lives in Washington, D.C. He can be reached at [email protected]

Editorial on 01/19/2020

Print Headline: The evolving issue of marriage equality

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