• Gay Marriage vs. Religious Freedom: A proposed solution (part 1)

Gay Marriage vs. Religious Freedom: A proposed solution (part 1)

Over the past year, the issue of LGBT civil rights and religious freedom has come to the forefront of American cultural dialogue. Issues involving photographers, bakeries and even pizza joints facing claims of discrimination and hateful bigotry have garnered much press. Indiana’s governer faced a severe public relations backlash after attempting to pass a “Religious Freedom” law, and just today Ireland (the most conservative Western European nation) voted to legalize same-sex marriage–which I believe is a preview of things to come on this side of the Atlantic in the near future.

So, what are Christians to do in a culture that becomes more and more post-Christian in its pluralism and legal landscape? Should we ramp up the culture wars mentality to an even greater degree, dig in our heels and fight to keep marriage somewhat related to the traditional Judeo-Christian male-female prerequisite? Or should we accept same-sex marriage as a chance to show people the love of Jesus by serving them and celebrating their unions–and legally requiring those who disagree to do so despite their convictions?

Or is there a better way altogether to move forward as a nation consisting of individuals with widely divergent beliefs and traditions?

I believe there is.

You may remember the Dojo Drog video I posted a while back in which I proposed a legal solution to this seeming impasse. If you did not see it, here it is:

Since I posted that video, I have had numerous discussions with people from very different backgrounds. From hardline rightwing conservative culture warriors to openly-gay far left progressive culture warriors. Christian, atheist, Jewish and agnostic. Republican, Democrat, Libertarian and Independent.

The discussions have taken place on social media for the most part. And over time, I have become more convinced than ever that there is indeed a solution that would uphold the MOST rights of the MOST people of the MOST differing views–which is something we should ALL want to see happen if we are to live together in relative peace with one another.

After talking with my friend Owen (who is a fellow Methodist, a full time Pastor, and perhaps the most balanced and insightful voice I’ve ever come across online), we decided that it would be good if we were able to put forth a solution to this debate–to introduce something people can be FOR rather than simpy what they are AGAINST. So he and I co-authored the following response that we believe can generate more light than heat in an already overheated culture emersed in the quagmire of civil rights vs. religious freedom cases.

If you find it helpful, challenging, or encouraging in any way, please share it in your own circles. And if you work in the a legal or political fields and are interested in exploring and expanding our proposal to introduce in your own spheres of influence, we would love to talk more with you about it. You can contact us via http://jmsmith.org/contact or http://owenweddle.com/

Thank you for reading and stay tuned for parts 2 and 3.



Civil Rights & Religious Freedom in a Pluralist Society:
A Proposed Way Forward

Owen Weddle & JM Smith


When it comes to the subject of same-sex marriage, one hardly needs to be told that we live in a country divided.

When the Supreme Court heard arguments in the case of Obergfell v. Hodges, they were faced with addressing a dillemma that transcends simply the legal question at hand about gay marriage. On the one hand, the court case is about determining whether states can or cannot restrict the definition of marriage and if states may or may not refuse to recognize same-sex marriages performed in other states.

But the concerns are broader than that; our country waits with baited breath to see what direction the United States will go overall. While the case directly answers the question “will same-sex relationships be treated as the same as opposite-sex relationships across the nation?” there is a broader question over which our society fundamentally disagrees.

That question is: “What defines our pluralist society and our relationships to one another?”

This political conflict is not just about the definition of marriage, but also the fundamental definitions of our society. Throughout its history, American society has largely been defined by, or in relation to our definition of family and gender:

  • When and with whom can we have intimate relationships and marry?
  • Who can raise children?
  • How are people to receive us and our ‘family?’
  • How should I view my sex and gender?
  • How should others view my sex and gender?

However, at this moment in history, we find ourselves in the midst of a potential paradigm shift away from the traditional definitions that provided the categories and behaviors into which people generally fit. We are now rapidly moving toward a more broadly defined parameter where individual choice and personal preference are to determine the overall shape of our society.

Many advocates for both the traditional and progressive sides have such deeply conflicting views that they are at an impasse. Given the rhetoric of the “culture wars” mentality embraced by those at both ends of the political spectrum, there seems to be no way for both sides to come out in a win-win scenario.

Many traditionalists would seek to limit the role of a person’s self-definition regarding identity and relationships. By contrast, many progressives seek a society that treats all sexual and gender identities as identical and interchangeable, particularly in government and the marketplace (the Oregon lawsuit of the bakery that refused to make a wedding cake for a same-sex marriage being a prime example).

This fundamental disagreement results in a zero-sum or win-lose situation, where no matter the direction the courts go, one side gets all that they want with little regard for (and the inevidable demonization of!) the other side’s rationale or concerns. In the meantime, while the “culture war” rages, opposing views are often caricatured as fundamentally bad and dismissed as “bigotry” or “perversion” which has no place in a ‘good’ society.

Whatever decision the court makes, we should fear such zero-sum win-lose scenarios. I (Owen) am a Christian pastor who believes the Bible paints sex and marriage as being between a male and female. I have been the recipient of rather abusive and judgmental speech because I have chosen to affirm this traditional view. I am the family member and friend to people who identify as gay, lesbian, or bisexual, along with friends and family who are LGBTQ advocates. I myself had the feelings of same-sex attraction late in high school and early in college (although today I consider myself heterosexual and will only consider a romantic relationship with a woman) and was made fun of for being gay earlier in my school years. While I cannot pretend to fully understand all the feelings of people on both sides, I have tasted the bitterness from both toxic pools. The people I know from both sides of my life are not bad, irrational, or evil people. But they will resent any decision which conflicts with their vision for society.

This is part of the tension involved in living within a society that has increasingly embraced a multi-cultural, pluralistic worldview. If there is no one, official religion/language/culture/etc., then you leave room for many diverging beliefs to be developed and expressed.

So, how will we Americans define our society and relationships? Will we affirm the traditionalist or the progressive paradigm?

Our hope, prayer, and reason for writing is to suggest an option that avoids the win-lose approaches. We want to suggest, as best we can, a win-win solution. One in which people who seek to live according to a traditional or a progressive (or any other) cultural outlook or religious worldview may do so with minimal government compulsion and maximum government protection. We want to encourage a society that upholds the MOST rights for the MOST people—especially when it comes to such fundamental disagreements as those surrounding the nature of family, marriage or gender issues. Genuine “equality” must entail a respect for ALL people’s views and practices, not just the few for which we ourselves advocate.

While we are Christians who hold to the traditional New Testament sexual ethic, we also realize that Scripture does not spend much time policing the sexual practices of other cultures. The people who claim loyalty to the God revealed in Scripture are the main recipients of criticism regarding their sexual practices. We do not seek, nor do we desire a secular government that imposes a traditional sexuality on society by compulsion. Furthermore, we realize that the federal laws of the United States were never defined by the teachings of Scripture (contrary to many of our fellow Christians’ claims that America was intended to be a “Christian Nation”).

At the same time, we do not want a government compelling us and other like-minded persons to directly participate in practices, celebrations, or artistic/speech acts that we deem antithetical to our faith. Nor do we want anyone else to be compelled to act against their deeply held religious or ethical beliefs in such ways.

While no solution will be perfect for every single person, we genuinely desire to live in a multi-cultural society where each person can live as consistently as possible within their own chosen definitions of life, while minimizing the burdens on others who choose to live within theirs.

In the next two posts, we will present an option that we believe reaches toward that goal. What we propose may not be perfect, and there will be something that the staunch activists on both sides will find unacceptable, if not even infuriating. But since we are not perfect ourselves, nor do we care to side with the extreme elements of our society, our goal is simply to spark cultural conversation that presents the majority of people with a workable solution, and at the same time reduces as much as possible the needless antagonism and hostility which surrounds current discussions of religious freedom and LGBT rights.

[Click HERE for part 2]

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  1. AmyS

    One of the commonly suggested remedies to the tension you describe is privatization of marriage. If you discuss that, I hope to hear suggestions about how protections might be offered to spouses and children in cases of divorce.


    Owen Reply:

    Hi Amy!

    Just to say, we are not proposing the privatization of marriage. While I can’t speak for JM, in my opinion, there are too many issues like you mentioned for the government to be out of the business of marriage, or whatever term you would wish to describe a social arrangement between two people (such as “civil unions”). Marriage has always had an economic element to it and since it is in the government’s interest to ensure inheritance, appropriate care of children, etc. they can’t just abstain from having some legal way that defines to unity of two persons.

    Not to get ahead of what we are going to say, but what we are doing isn’t circumventing the tension by taking an approach of governmental escapism (getting the government entirely out of something that the culture is in conflict over) to become multi-cultural, but it is trying to address to, so to speak, the government acting within the tension.


    Comment by AmyS on May 24, 2015 at 12:25 am

  2. Dan

    By chance, have you ever come across (then) Cardinal Ratzinger’s ” Letter on the Pastoral Care of Homosexual Persons”. I think it’s well worth reading by anyone faced with these complex, pastoral situations. It is an extraordinary and deeply-thoughtful statement from a Church that also has an equally uncompromising view about the nature of marriage and homosexual behavior.

    I think this quote really sums it up nicely:

    “An authentic pastoral programme will assist homosexual persons at all levels of the spiritual life: through the sacraments, and in particular through the frequent and sincere use of the sacrament of Reconciliation, through prayer, witness, counsel and individual care. In such a way, the entire Christian community can come to recognize its own call to assist its brothers and sisters, without deluding them or isolating them.

    16. From this multi-faceted approach there are numerous advantages to be gained, not the least of which is the realization that a homosexual person, as every human being, deeply needs to be nourished at many different levels simultaneously.

    The human person, made in the image and likeness of God, can hardly be adequately described by a reductionist reference to his or her sexual orientation. Every one living on the face of the earth has personal problems and difficulties, but challenges to growth, strengths, talents and gifts as well. Today, the Church provides a badly needed context for the care of the human person when she refuses to consider the person as a “heterosexual” or a “homosexual” and insists that every person has a fundamental Identity: the creature of God, and by grace, his child and heir to eternal life.”

    Full text here:


    Comment by Dan on May 24, 2015 at 6:19 am

  3. […] Smith and I have teamed together to co-write a proposal regarding societal tension and conflict surrounding religious freedom and civil rights. The trigger […]

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  4. […] HERE for part […]

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