Dean William B. Lawrence:
High Court rulings on marriage and voting rights do matter to churches

William B. Lawrence, dean of SMU's Perkins School of Theology, says this week's rulings by the U.S. Supreme Court on same-sex marriage and on voting rights do matter to churches.

By William B. Lawrence
Dean of SMU's Perkins School of Theology

It is the law of The United Methodist Church that a minister of the denomination is not permitted to conduct same sex marriages but it is also a Social Principle of the church that homosexual persons are persons of sacred worth who should receive the benefits of the ministries of the church. Some pastors and lay leaders find that church law and that church social principle to be in direct conflict.

Most students at Perkins are United Methodists and the vast majority of our United Methodist students are preparing for leadership as ministers of the denomination.  In our classes for those students we give instruction on what the law of the church says, on the process that is to be followed for changing church law whenever one finds a provision of the church law that appears to be unjust, and on the consequences that may occur if someone such as an ordained minister might decide that an item of church law is so unjust it should be disobeyed.

There were two Supreme Court decisions reached by 5-4 votes and released this week that should be discussed. One is the decision regarding same sex marriage and the other is the decision regarding the Voting Rights Act. I told a reporter that I presume pastors would feel led to address those matters in their sermons on Sunday. 

While the church lives within the structures and laws of the society, the church is very profoundly protected by the First Amendment of the Constitution to be free from legislative control or limitation. Therefore no church can be required by civil law to perform same sex marriage if their doctrines and disciplines prohibit it. Similarly, no church can be prohibited from conducting rituals that celebrate same sex unions if their doctrines and disciplines permit it, even though such unions in a particular state right now might not have the legal status of marriage. The same is also true regarding the 5-4 decision on the Voting Rights Act. Just because the Supreme Court has spoken on a specific provision of the law does not mean that the church is prohibited from speaking and acting in ways that would seek to change the laws or to get more voters registered. Under our Constitution, the state cannot compel religious bodies to act in specific ways or to refrain from prophetic actions.

It is a matter of pastoral curiosity to me that many Texans including journalists saw the Court's decision on same sex marriage to be a matter of high religious interest but did not see the Voting Rights case as something of religious interest. I think both cases are profoundly important to the church. The civil rights actions that led ultimately to the adopting of that legislation in 1965, the overwhelming approval of renewing the legislation by Congress (including a vote of 98-0 in the Senate), and the signing of the renewal by President George W. Bush should suggest that there has been overwhelming national, social, and religious support for the Voting Rights Act. Will there be any religious outrage that it has been modified significantly by a 5-4 vote? Will any religious leader or preacher this weekend proclaim that the court majority in the Voting Rights Act bowed to the "political correctness" that is sweeping one political party in America to oppose voting rights by certain segments of the population who can be identified by race, ethnicity, language, or socio-economic class?

There may be a segment of the population that thinks the "Christian" point of view on the matter of same sex marriage is to say that the Biblical view of marriage is one man with one woman. Not only is that an inaccurate understanding of the diverse points of view on marriage held by Christians, it is also an inaccurate understanding of the Bible.

Some Christian bodies say marriage is between one man and one woman only, for a lifetime, without any way for terminating the marriage through divorce. Other Christians clearly disagree. Some Christians affirm and celebrate same sex marriage, others prohibit the church from conducting it—yet among the latter, there are churches that welcome same-sex couples into the active membership of the church, just not recognizing them as married couples. And the Biblical views on marriage actually range widely. Abraham and Sarah had a marriage which was childless until Sarah conveyed an item of her property (namely her maid Hagar) to Abraham, who then impregnated her. That is one Biblical model of marriage, but it is not a model that we should affirm. Another view of marriage was offered by the Apostle Paul, who advised Christians not to marry unless they would "burn" without the benefit of marriage.

William B. Lawrence is dean of SMU's Perkins School of Theology and an expert in United Methodism and American culture, and United Methodist history and doctrine.