Church, State and Marriage Equality: Conservative Religious Interests Want to Control Civil Marriage Law. Will the Supreme Court Let Them?

Article excerpt

After voters in Washington state approved marriage equality in November, Larry Duncan and Randell Shepherd of North Bend were among the first batch of couples to apply for a license.

A photo of the two bearded and burly men wearing plaid flannel shirts and camouflage baseball caps as they applied for a wedding license went viral on the internet. The image was both ordinary and extraordinary, and people were charmed that the stereo-typical portrait of married couples in America had been expanded to include couples like Duncan and Shepherd.

Snapshots of their Dec. 9 wedding at a Baptist church in Seattle show them attired in spiffier duds at what was clearly a joyous occasion. Duncan and Shepherd, who have been together for 11 years, deliberately chose a church wedding even though neither is particularly religious.

They wanted to make a statement.

"Enough people have told me, 'God hates fags," Duncan told NBC News, reciting the infamous placard phrase from homophobic preacher Fred Phelps. "I want someone in a church to say, 'God loves fags,' to have that stamp on it."

Although the two found a welcoming church, their happy day might never have occurred if conservative religious groups had their way.

Polls show growing acceptance of LGBT rights and, for the first time ever, slim majority support for same-sex marriage, but aggressive and well-funded Religious Right groups and the Roman Catholic hierarchy remain doggedly opposed. They're determined to stop what they see as a "redefinition" of marriage.

For now, they're pinning their hopes on the U.S. Supreme Court. Last month the justices heard arguments in two cases dealing with marriage rights: Hollingsworth v. Perry is a challenge to Proposition 8, a constitutional amendment approved by California voters that took away same-sex couples' access to marriage, and U.S. v. Windsor, a challenge to the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), a federal law passed in 1996 that defines marriage as the union of one man and one woman for federal governmental purposes. Decisions are expected this summer.

The high court showdown comes in the wake of three ballot box victories for marriage equality proponents. In November, voters in Washington, Maryland and Maine voted to approve marriage equality. (In addition, Minnesota voters rejected a state constitutional amendment that would have banned same-sex marriage.)

Sociologists and political analysts argue that a major cultural shift is under way in America. Some are openly predicting that the day will come when efforts to ban same-sex marriage are looked at with great embarrassment, similar to the way many people today cringe when they think of Jim Crow-era laws that blocked interracial marriage.

But this shift isn't going to happen without a battle. Religious Right organizations, aided and abetted by their allies in the Catholic hierarchy, are livid about the cultural shifts under way in the country. They have vowed to keep on fighting.

The day after the November election, Brian Brown, president of the National Organization for Marriage, issued a defiant statement.

"Though we are disappointed over these losses, we remain faithful to our mission and committed to the cause of preserving marriage as God designed it," Brown asserted. "Marriage is a true and just cause, and we will never abandon the field of battle just because we experienced a setback. There is much work to do, and we begin that process now."

Brown's group isn't the only one preparing for the showdown. With all eyes on the Supreme Court, Religious Right groups have been quick to weigh in.

Not surprisingly, these organizations have bombarded the high court with legal briefs. There is a slight problem, however: The court isn't likely to be persuaded by purely religious assertions. Citing the Bible or papal edicts doesn't amount to a legal argument.

Thus groups like the Alliance Defending Freedom, the Family Research Council and the U. …