(Originally posted June 27, 2015)
To those fellow-believers who have argued that “The government didn’t create marriage so the government can’t change its definition”:
It’s certainly true that government didn’t create marriage in the first place. And if marriage had remained merely a rite of the church – like baptism or communion – then government would have no more power to determine what constitutes a marriage than it does to mandate how we baptize or take communion.
But marriage didn’t remain only a rite of the church. And while government didn’t create marriage, it did create government-recognized marriage – marriage as a legal status under the law – what I’ll call “state-marriage” to differentiate the legal status from the rite of the church. To the extent that the government created state-marriage, it most certainly has the power (and in some cases, the obligation under the Constitution) to regulate and define it. In fact, the state has already “redefined”marriage in lots of ways, some of which directly contravene millennia of Judeo-Christian tradition:
- The state does not permit persons under a certain age to marry, while marriage of very young girls was common in Judeo-Christian tradition.
- The state does not permit one person to have multiple spouses simultaneously. Tough luck, Solomon.
- The state permits interracial and inter-religious marriage, which Judeo-Christian teaching generally forbade (Deut. 7:3).
- The state recognizes marriage by judges, magistrates, county clerks, and other non-ministerial authorities.
- The state permits remarriage after divorce, which is expressly forbidden in the Gospel.
- The state requires marrying parties to consent, while arranged marriages were common for millennia.
- The state does not require a man to marry a virgin if they have sex (Deut. 22: 28-29) or a man to marry his brother’s widow (Deut. 25:5).
And on and on and on. The government has defined and redefined the legal status of state-marriage plenty.
What the Supreme Court has not done – and in fact cannot do – is alter the definition of marriage as a rite of the church. Justice Kennedy’s opinion in Obergefell said so explicitly. Your church may continue to marry – or not marry – whomever it wishes. (There are still churches in the United States that refuse to perform interracial marriages almost fifty years after Loving v. Virginia.) But that is marriage as a rite of the church. So long as the government has created and recognizes the legal status that is state-marriage – and made receipt of certain benefits contingent on having that legal status – then the Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution requires that legal status to be available to all on an equal basis.