For most evangelical leaders, today's discussion of the nationwide legalization of same-sex marriage revolves around how best to express their dissent amid the legal uncertainties for churches and pastors.

“Outrage and panic are not the responses of those confident in the promises of a reigning Christ Jesus,” read a joint statement organized by the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission (ERLC) and signed by more than 100 evangelical leaders, including David Platt, J. I. Packer, Richard Mouw, Jim Daly, Al Mohler, and Ron Sider.

“While we believe the Supreme Court has erred in its ruling, we pledge to stand steadfastly, faithfully witnessing to the biblical teaching that marriage is the chief cornerstone of society, designed to unite men, women, and children,” the group stated. [Full text]

The National Association of Evangelicals (NAE) regrets the ruling but “calls on evangelicals to be gracious and compassionate to those who do not share their views on marriage and to also advocate for liberty for all who desire to live out their faith.”

Jim Daly, president of Focus on the Family, stated:

In the days to come, we must remember to season our words with salt. It’s time to be a light in these dark times. It is not time to be combative and caustic. Now, more than ever, we must emulate Jesus Christ. We must continue to show that loving kindness as we talk with our neighbors and friends who see this issue differently.

Not all Protestants disagreed with the decision.

“The Court holds that denying civil marriage to same-sex couples violates their fundamental right to civil marriage under the due-process clause and their right to equal protection in the enjoyment of that fundamental right. I think this holding is correct,” said Tom Berg, a law professor at the University of St. Thomas. “Many of the same principles that support religious liberty—the right to live one's life with integrity consistent with a fundamental element of one's identity—also support the right of gay couples to marry.”

But most evangelicals oppose the decision, including Al Mohler, John Piper, and Franklin Graham.

Lynne Marie Kohm, the associate dean at Regent University School of Law, told CT she was “disappointed” but not “saddened or disheartened” even though she filed an amicus brief arguing against same-sex marriage. [Many evangelical organizations filed this argument, and many evangelical experts filed this one.]

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“The Court has found a new fundamental right which will expand marriage toward a broader spectrum than was ever expected when women gained rights toward equality in modern marriage law,” Kohm told CT. “For centuries, that [traditional] understanding of marriage has served to forestall the ills—especially to women, children, and underprivileged populations—that all too often result when society separates sex, procreation, and childrearing. It has provided stability where there might otherwise be disorder.”

Most faith leaders worry the decision will erode religious liberty. “In the coming years, evangelical institutions could be pressed to sacrifice their sacred beliefs about marriage and sexuality in order to accommodate whatever demands the culture and law require,” the ERLC-led statement said. “We do not have the option to meet those demands without violating our consciences and surrendering the gospel. We will not allow the government to coerce or infringe upon the rights of institutions to live by the sacred belief that only men and women can enter into marriage.”

Christians will need to “increasingly appeal to the First Amendment protection not just for abstract belief, but for the practice of their faith,” stated the NAE, which “calls on Congress to enact laws, on the president to implement policies, and on the courts to render judgments that uphold the freedom and human rights of all Americans.”

Managing Your Church, a CT sister site, analyzes why there is "lots of litigation to come" because today's ruling "stopped short of stating a religious exemption." However, the analysis also found an "encouraging sign" in that the ruling "did not describe opposition to same-sex marriage as 'animus.'" This will be "important for churches and clergy as they seek to defend themselves in future cases,” said Joshua Hawley, an associate professor of law at the University of Missouri.

It’s possible to protect both same-sex couples and religious objectors, Berg said. He believes Justice Anthony Kennedy’s majority opinion tried to signal protection for religious dissenters, but its message was ambiguous.

While religious organizations and people “may continue to advocate with utmost, sincere conviction” against same-sex marriage, Kennedy’s decision doesn’t say anything about the right to exercise religion, like “for example, a religious college refusing to extend married student housing to same-sex couples,” said Berg.

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The court also says that the denial of same-sex marriage "demeans" and "disparages" gays and lesbians and their children, Berg said. “That could bode ill for religious-freedom protections if it means that the traditional view of marriage itself is demeaning and disparaging—even though the court elsewhere tries to express respect for the traditional view.”

Of course, a state “imposing the wide-ranging denial of marriage rights, for insufficient public reasons, is very different from the traditional organization or believer seeking to avoiding participating in or directly facilitating a marriage,” he said. “The court does say it's the state's action that is demeaning, but it could have made the distinction much more clearly.”

Potential conflict areas include colleges and universities that don’t allow the hiring of faculty in same-sex relationships, military chaplains who don’t want to marry same-sex couples, or agencies that have contracts with the government—like adoption or faith-based service organizations—that want to maintain their standards of heterosexual marriage, said ERLC president Russell Moore in a press conference.

Most Americans resonate with basic religious liberty protections, Moore said. “If we see the overreaching that would attempt to pave over consciences of dissenters, I think the American people will stand with us.”

About half of Americans support nationwide legalization of same-sex marriage, according to the Associated Press. However, most said it's more important for the government to protect religious liberties than the rights of gays and lesbians if the two come into conflict, by a 56 percent to 40 percent margin.

Support for same-sex marriage among evangelicals is less straightforward—and depends on their friendships. About 20 percent of evangelicals who say they have no gay or lesbian friends said that same-sex marriage should be legalized, a recent LifeWay Research poll found. But among evangelicals who have such friends, agreement nearly doubles to 38 percent.

Yet on the question of morality, the shift among evangelicals is much smaller. LifeWay found that 70 percent of evangelicals without gay or lesbian friends believe that “sex between people of the same gender is sinful, regardless of its legality,” while 62 percent of evangelicals with such friends still say likewise.

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Though Kennedy wrote that “the First Amendment ensures that religious organizations and persons are given proper protection” in the majority opinion, Samford University law professor David Smolin said it wasn’t enough.

“Kennedy’s defense of religious liberty is short and weak,” Smolin told CT. “He writes about the capacity to believe certain things but not practice them.” Kennedy’s assertion even prompted a sarcastic summary from Justice Samuel Alito that people can “whisper their thoughts in the recesses of their homes, but if they repeat those views in public, they will risk being labeled as bigots and treated as such by governments, employers, and schools.”

Legislatures and courts will need to specifically act to protect the religious freedom of organizations and persons, Stanley Carlson-Thies, director of the Institutional Religious Freedom Alliance, told CT. “In the meantime, religious organizations should take care that their policies and practices be aligned with the religious convictions that are the reason for their existence.”

The majority opinion is interesting not just for the religious liberty question it addresses, but also because of what it leaves out, said Regent University law school dean Michael Hernandez. "Kennedy focuses on the Fourteenth Amendment and due process, but doesn’t address whether the court should function as a generalizing authority the way it now does."

“Most of those waiting for the Supreme Court ruling expected this decision,” Mark Yarhouse, director of the Institute for the Study of Sexual Identity at Regent University, told CT. “We live in a diverse and pluralistic culture, and this ruling reflects just that."

He continued, "My primary responsibility today is as it was yesterday: to point people to Christ and to a good and loving Father whose plan and will for them is better than their own. How Christians love those with whom we disagree will also be a part of that pointing to Christ.”

It is likely that Christians who hold to a traditional view of marriage will seem more and more backwards and unloving, said John Starke, who pastors at Apostles Church in New York City. “This will likely put us in uncomfortable and even isolating places. But it's an opportunity to dig deep into the resources of the gospel and seek wisdom and identification with Christians throughout the world and history who have flourished in marginal places.”

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As Christians “work arduously to recognize the image of God in every individual,” they must build a “firewall against intolerance and bigotry toward followers of Christ,” stated Samuel Rodriguez, president of the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference. “At the same time ... we reject and repudiate all vestiges of homophobia, intolerance, and bigotry.”

The ERLC signatories committed to “teach the truth about biblical marriage in a way that brings healing to a sexually broken culture” and to “love our neighbors regardless of whatever disagreements arise as a result of conflicting beliefs about marriage.”

Moore told reporters that “our mission field has profoundly changed.”

“I don’t think the sexual revolution will be able to keep its promises or remain sustainable,” he said. “We need churches who can receive refugees from the sexual revolution” that makes promises it can’t keep.

“In the short term, things are certainly stacked against us,” said Moore. “But marriage is resilient, and this infinitely expanding definition of marriage is not sustainable. After the marriage revolution, we have to be the people still standing with light lit.”

Justin Anderson, who pastors Redemption Church in the middle of San Francisco, agreed.

“If the gospel is true, then eventually those whom Christ is saving and the Holy Spirit is revealing itself to will open eyes to see that this thing [the sexual revolution] is bankrupt,” he said. “We absolutely have to have open arms, and leave judgement and ridicule and ‘I told you so’ behind. We have to be ready with the gospel to welcome people into life and truth.”

His advice to pastors facing same-sex marriage cultural pressure is to “disciple your people well.”

“We have to have an answer for the hope we have in Christ, to speak intelligently and winsomely about it,” he said. “Our people are on the front lines. They have to go to work and face the inevitable conversation and question.... Pastors need to equip our people to be able to know what people have believed for 2,000 years and why. Give them confidence in that answer, and also temper them and prepare them for the backlash that will happen.”

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Straightening out the tangle of the definition of marriage won’t be quickly done, Moore said.

“This is a 100-year struggle in front of us, in terms of defining what marriage and family mean and should mean,” he said. “Even if the Supreme Court had ruled the right way today, it wouldn’t have solved the skirmish. It would’ve just pushed it back to the 50 states to solve it. There’s not going to be a magic moment to restore things to the way they were. We have to have a long-term view.”

[Photo courtesy of Ted Eytan - Flickr]