In 2004, Swedish Pentecostal pastor Åke Green preached a sermon in which he denounced homosexuality as a "cancerous tumor" on society. A Swedish court subsequently sentenced him to one month in prison for hate speech (a charge that was eventually dismissed). Americans were shocked by the incident, but not alarmed. After all, those poor Swedes have no First Amendment protection of even the most eccentric religious beliefs, a protection Americans have as a matter of course.
Or do we?
On paper, yes. But American Christians need to take a careful look at what is already happening. Looming ahead through a blurry fog of impending lawsuits and court decisions on gay marriage is a train wreck of epic proportions. Its cause? The determination of the gay rights community to have absolute equality with heterosexuals over the issue of marriage.
Now equality is a good thing, right? After all, the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s was all about gaining equality before the law for African Americans. As Martin Luther King Jr. famously said, the dream was that Americans would be judged not by the color of their skin but by "the content of their character." The American gay community, however, has largely succeeded in defining the issue of gay freedom as one of human rights, analogous to the civil rights struggle to achieve full legal equality for African Americans. Their goal is to establish gay sexual behavior as a basic human right, no different from the right of African Americans to complete acceptance, and indeed approval, within the larger American society.
The difficulty is that while the civil rights struggle challenged only some aspects of religious freedom, the current gay struggle for total sexual equality, with its challenge to the traditional concept of marriage, runs headlong into historic norms of freedom of religion. It is, in fact, the legalization of gay marriage in Massachusetts in 2003 that opened up a Pandora's box of lawsuits threatening freedom of religious practice.
After the Massachusetts Supreme Court ruled that same-sex marriage was legal, a 1971 IRS ruling came into play. It decreed tax-exempt status should be denied to non-profit groups that hold views "contrary to public policy."
Since same-sex marriage had been defined by Massachusetts as "public policy," any organization that refused to extend social services to same-sex couples would be liable to lawsuits for discrimination. The first Massachusetts religious group to run into this legal buzz saw was Catholic Charities. This widely respected private adoption agency would not permit adoption by gay couples, because the practice contradicts traditional Catholic teaching on marriage and sexual morality. In March of this year, the agency announced that it was abandoning adoption altogether rather than face state prosecution for discrimination.
It is unlikely that churches will be forced to conduct gay weddings against the consciences of pastors and priests. Still, the climate of assertive favoritism toward gays by state and local institutions across the country has already chilled sharply the atmosphere of free religious speech.
In the front line of this assault are not churches or synagogues, but schools and college fellowship groups. In San Francisco in April, a federal district court judge upheld the right of the University of California's Hastings School of Law to deny campus recognition of the Christian Legal Society because of the society's requirement that members abstain from gay sex. In August, the University of Wisconsin's Superior campus denied recognition of InterVarsity Christian Fellowship for similar reasons.
The issue has gone far beyond the freedom of homosexuals to live and act openly; the issue is now the freedom of religious people and organizations to criticize that lifestyle.
A factor adding to the fog obscuring the impending train wreck is the ambivalence of ordinary Americans on marriage. Though nearly 60 percent oppose gay marriage, the nation is split evenly regarding a constitutional amendment officially defining marriage as between a man and a woman. Twice in two years, moreover, bills introducing the Marriage Protection Amendment have failed by a wide margin to gain the needed two-thirds majority in the Senate.
The danger is that gay marriage has always had the potential to be a wedge issue for other, more controversial forms of marriage like polygamy. Don't laugh. In Holland, there has already been one polygamous marriage.
Sexual freedom? Why not, as long as it doesn't bother me. But when it affects religious freedom, it bothers us all.
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Maggie Gallagher made a similar argument in a May 15, 2006, article for The Weekly Standard. The Associated Press's Richard Ostling examined the issue in June, as did The Christian Science Monitor (which also covered it in 2004), The New York Times's Peter Steinfels, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution's op-ed page, Jonathan Last (writing in The Philadelphia Inquirer). National Review Online's Kathryn Jean Lopez wrote about the issue back in March.
More about David Aikman is available from his website. He is author of Jesus in Beijing and A Man Of Faith: The Spiritual Journey of George W. Bush. His latest book Qi, a novel, is now available.
David Aikman's previous Global Prognosis columns for Christianity Today include:
'A More Practical Approach' | A fledgling group in China tries a 'new' strategy to secure human rights. (Aug. 16, 2006)
An Ugly Phoenix Reborn | European anti-Semitism is more widespread than has been let on. (June 6, 2006)
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