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Boisi Center for Religion and American Public Life

Gay Marriage in Theology, Law and Politics

Event Recap

The Boisi Center’s final event of the academic year brought a robust crowd on April 22 to a panel discussion on “Gay Marriage in Theology, Law and Politics.” The panel took stock of the issue four years after Massachusetts became the first—and still the only—state in the U.S. to legalize gay marriage. Erik Owens moderated the vigorous discussion that followed the speakers’ opening remarks.

William Stacy Johnson, a professor of systematic theology at Princeton Theological Seminary, began the panel by describing seven distinct theological approaches to gay marriage clustered into categories of “non-affirming,” “welcoming and affirming,” and “welcoming, affirming and ordering” viewpoints, the last being his favored position. Drawing upon his recent book A Time to Embrace, Johnson sought to dispel the simplistic rhetoric that allows one to be only “for” or “against” gay marriage, arguing instead that churches can move toward reconciliation on this issue only when they recognize the rich diversity of such perspectives within their faith communities.

David Blankenhorn, president of the Institute for American Values, argued that although heterosexual and homosexual relationships have equal value, marriage is an institution rightly reserved for one man and one woman. Marriage, he said, serves not simply the private romantic function of bonding two adults but also the more important public function of protecting and nurturing children, who have a natural right to be raised by their biological parents. Drawing upon recent social scientific data, he cited an inverse correlation between support for traditional marriage and support for gay marriage, and argued that legalizing the latter would further diminish the prochild core value of traditional marriage.

Cheryl Jacques, former Massachusetts state senator and former president of the Human Rights Campaign, contextualized the movement for gay marriage as part of the ongoing civil rights struggle in this country. Gays and lesbians, she argued, face discrimination today akin to past efforts to marginalize women, African-Americans, and other ethnic and religious minorities. Members of these groups simply want and deserve equality; they should have equal rights, not special rights.

The final speaker was Kerry Healey, who served as lieutenant governor of Massachusetts when the state supreme court legalized gay marriage in 2004. Had the legislature acted on the increasing public pressure to grant modest legal rights to gay relationships (e.g. regarding medical visits and inheritance), she noted, the state supreme court would not have intervened with a decree to sanction full marriage rights. This act of judicial activism went well beyond the incremental steps most citizens favored, and led to years of divisiveness and acrimony. Perhaps the most appropriate solution for church and state alike, she suggested, would be for the state to grant only civil unions (to heterosexual and homosexual couples). Marriage would then be the exclusive province of religious communities, which could define it in their own terms.