Cover Story

Gettin’ on board the gay marriage train

"Gettin’ on board the gay marriage train" Continued...

Issue: "Unstoppable?," April 20, 2013

But orthodox religious leaders aren’t conceding the point so quickly. As Bell announced his position, Timothy Keller, the pastor of perhaps the largest theologically conservative church in New York City, Redeemer Presbyterian, addressed the issue at an Ethics and Public Policy forum for journalists in Miami. Keller said that even though views on gay marriage may be changing politically, personal religious views against homosexuality are likely to remain more rigid because they form a core part of the Bible. In that way, homosexuality is different from race, he argued. 

“[The Bible] is very clear on marriage and sex,” Keller said. “There’s an inertia in the Bible that allows a person to get a lot of leeway in politics … but it doesn’t give you a lot of leeway on those social issues and basic theology.” Keller, whose views on homosexuality and gay marriage drew wider media scrutiny after the Miami event, acknowledged the political winds are strong against even admitting to believe the concept of biblical sexuality. He cited the White House forcing Pastor Louie Giglio to remove himself from offering a prayer at the president’s inauguration this year because of Giglio’s orthodox Christian views on sexuality.

“What we were being told was, ‘You’re beyond the pale,’” Keller said. “Not just that you’re wrong, but respect for you is wrong. That was heard loud and clear in the conservative Protestant world … that we don’t even have a right to be in the public square.”

Polls show the country shifting rapidly toward greater approval of same-sex marriage, but it’s not a majority view yet. A Pew Research Center poll released before the Supreme Court arguments showed 49 percent of the country approves of legalizing same-sex marriage, compared to 33 percent a decade ago. But The Washington Post recently pointed out a “Bradley effect” in polling on the issue—when voters express support for an African-American candidate in polling because they don’t want to appear intolerant, but they’ll vote differently in the privacy of the ballot box. In the voter initiatives on same-sex marriage that passed last year, polling ahead of Election Day showed much higher margins of victory than the measures actually garnered in the end.

The high court seemed ready to let that battle in the ballot boxes continue, which is what traditional marriage supporters had advocated. Both the DOMA and Prop 8 cases are exceedingly complex, and the court has many options for resolving them. The justices could issue broad rulings, issue narrow rulings, or dismiss the cases on technicalities like standing or jurisdiction.

If the court does decide the cases on their merits, Justice Anthony Kennedy, the key vote who has written the court’s two major gay-rights opinions, seemed unwilling to go as far as the challengers to Prop 8 and DOMA want: that gay marriage is a constitutional right. During arguments he said gay marriage advocates were asking the court to go into “uncharted waters,” and he wasn’t sure which metaphor those waters led to: a “wonderful destination” or a “cliff.” 

The one thing that apparently held Kennedy back was the lack of social science evidence of the effect of gay marriage on children. In the Prop 8 arguments he noted, “We have five years of information to weigh against 2,000 years of history or more.” 

Kennedy’s reasoning parroted a brief by two conservative scholars, Leon Kass and Harvey Mansfield. The pair argued that same-sex marriage is a recent innovation (it didn’t exist anywhere until the year 2000) and not enough time has elapsed for any reliable scientific information on children raised in such households to emerge. Keller, in his Florida talk, similarly argued, “Give it 30 years … to some degree, the proof will be in the pudding.” 

The courtroom, even though it was packed in both cases, had a serenity to it that was absent in the political fervor and demonstrations outside—no cameras, no cell phones, and no signs allowed. No one stood up and made a scene. It was an intense intellectual conversation between nine justices and a bench of lawyers, punctuated by a sick Justice Sonia Sotomayor’s sneezes. Of course that serenity is by design, because the court is supposed to be immune to political noise.

But the political noise may get to Kennedy over the next couple months, in the way that some imagine political pressure played into Roberts’ surprise decision upholding the 2010 healthcare law. If Kennedy is the key vote toward legalizing same-sex marriage, having written the court’s two major gay rights opinions (Romer v. Evans in 1996 and Lawrence v. Texas in 2003), he might see himself gaining a glowing place in history. 


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