Other Sheep Memo on Gay Marriage and Religious Liberty

The tireless Rev. Steve Parelli and Jose Ortiz of the GLBT Christian outreach ministry Other Sheep are touring Southeast Asia this month, with stops in Nepal and Thailand. Earlier this week, they held a seminar in Kathmandu for 26 pastors, where representatives from Nepal’s Blue Diamond Society also spoke. This resource web page is aimed at Nepali pastors but will be useful to GLBT-affirming religious leaders in other cultures as well.

One of the resources I found especially interesting was Steve’s paper titled “How Baptist Doctrine May Obligate the Evangelical to View Same-Sex Marriage as Primarily a Civil Matter and a Matter of Individual Conscience”.
This paper was first presented at the 2006 annual meeting of the Evangelical Theological Society.

Steve discusses American Baptists’ history of support for religious freedom and church-state separation, a point on which Roger Williams split with the Puritans in colonial times. The American Baptist tradition emerged in opposition to their European forebears, including Luther and Calvin, who were more comfortable with using civil authority to enforce obedience to doctrine. Steve then argues that since legalizing gay marriage does not infringe on the liberty of conscience of those who oppose it, evangelicals should not seek to write their Bible-based views into law. Excerpts:

…In a written statement to his congregation on Sunday, Nov. 5, 2006, Ted Haggard, who recently resigned as president of the National Association of Evangelicals, said of his same-sex relations with a gay escort, “I am guilty of sexual immorality.

“There is a part of my life,” he says, “that is so repulsive and dark that I’ve been warring against it all my adult life. … From time to time, the dirt that I thought was gone would resurface, and I would find myself thinking thoughts and experiencing desires that were contrary to everything I believe and teach. . . . the darkness increased and finally dominated me. As a result, I did things that were contrary to everything I believe. … the deception and sensuality that was in my life . . . need to be dealt with harshly” (New Life Church, Colorado Springs, Colorado, website).

Ted Haggard’s remarks are timely and relevant. First, he tells us that his same-sex attraction existed for the duration of his adult life, increasing more and more and finally dominating. Secondly, he tells us, twice, that his homosexual desires and acts are contrary to everything he believes and teaches, and that – on the basis of his belief system – his homosexuality is repulsive, dark and dirty. Thus, his views on homosexuality are sectarian and his sectarian views must trump his own personal life-long homosexual experiences. While this may be true for Ted Haggard and the evangelical Religious Right he represents, this does not hold true for other gays and lesbians (whether evangelical or not) who have reexamined the church’s teachings in light of their life-long adult homosexual experiences and have, in contrast to Ted Haggard’s faith and practice, submitted scripture to reason, experience and re-interpretation.

The question this paper addresses is this: can Ted Haggard vote his conscience in a ballot initiative to ban gay marriage without wrongly violating the conscience and liberties of others who according to the dictates of their conscience do not find homosexual love repulsive, nor dark, and neither contrary to or dependent upon scripture. Ted Haggard can judge himself according to the dictates of his conscience. But, can he impose the same standard upon the conscience of others through the use of civil law? The 17th century Boston Puritan, Rev. John Cotton would answer, “Yes.” Roger Williams, his contemporary and theological opponent would answer, “No.”


…In the matter of gay marriage, the question, for a democracy, is not “What is right?” but rather, “Who should determine what is right: the church, the state, or the individual?”

Today’s evangelicals are bringing the wrong question to the public square. Evangelicals are addressing the question, “What is right?” When Robert Gagnon says “for any given homosexual person hope exists for forming a heterosexual union” – that directive addresses the question “What is right?” and belongs in the pulpit not in the capital (Myers & Scanzoni 2005: 126.)

It is the Baptists who have historically brought the right question to the public square. And so it must be now. In the matter of gay marriage, the question is, “Who should determine what is right: the church, the state, or the individual?” The historical, Baptist answer is the individual and therefore the state must defend liberty of conscience.

Why the individual? Because gay marriage “does not interfere with the rights of conscience.” That means, my right to a gay marriage does not interfere with your right to refrain from a gay marriage. So then, gay marriage compels no individual, whereas a ban on gay marriage is “compulsory heterosexuality” (Eskridge 1996: 143), and in the words of 17th century English Baptist John Murton: “The foulest of crimes is to force people’s bodies to a worship whereunto they cannot bring their spirits.”

Finally, gay marriage “does not violate the [civil] laws of morality and property” (Justice Samuel Miller) (Gaustad 1991: 44). Same-sex civil union in place of gay marriage is an expression of intolerance, discrimination and oppression. And according to Ted Jelen, professor of political science at the University of Nevada at Las Vegas, “Identification of religious principles with political values can be considered a violation of the First Commandment as well as the First Amendment” (Jelen 2000: 94).