Tilt toward gay marriage hits hiccup

WASHINGTON (BP) -- Southern Baptist public policy specialists have welcomed a rare court decision out of step with the same-sex marriage juggernaut while reaffirming the need for an ongoing defense of the God-ordained institution.

A Tennessee county judge ruled the state has the authority to limit marriage to a man and a woman, setting forth an exception to more than three dozen rulings in the last 14 months in favor of same-sex marriage. Russell Simmons, circuit court judge in Roane County, ruled Aug. 5 that a Tennessee law barring recognition of gay marriages from other states does not violate the U.S. Constitution.

Russell D. Moore, president of the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, applauded Simmons' uncommon opinion.

"Courts around the country seem determined to try to impose a redefinition of marriage, and I'm happy to see one court decision that refuses to try and will into existence constitutional planks by force of its own will," Moore said in a statement for Baptist Press.

The ruling came as the issue moves forward in the federal court system. Two federal appeals courts already have upheld the invalidation of state laws restricting marriage to opposite-sex couples, and other decisions at the appellate level are forthcoming. Those repudiations of laws in Virginia by the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals and in Oklahoma and Utah by the 10th Circuit have been appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, which could review those opinions or others and issue a ruling in its next term, which begins in October.

In the Virginia case, the Supreme Court today (Aug. 20) stayed the Fourth Circuit's ruling, which was scheduled to go into effect Thursday (Aug. 21). The high court's stay prevents the issuing of marriage licenses in the state to same-sex couples until the appeals process is completed.

Simmons, in his ruling, wrote that marriage is a "fundamental right" but noted, "The battle is not between whether or not marriage is a fundamental right but what unions are included in the definition of marriage. The Legislative Branch of Tennessee and the voters of Tennessee have said that the definition of marriage should be as it always has been. That man's best definition of marriage will always be the union of one man and one woman."

Andrew Walker, the ERLC's director of policy studies, said Simmons was right to conclude "the debate Americans are having on marriage is about marriage's substance and definition -- not whether traditional and biblical understandings of marriage are somehow now exclusionary because of evolving moral norms."

"That's what the heart of this debate really is: What is marriage?" Walker said. "Marriage either is something or it isn't. What Judge Simmons' ruling allows is for citizens to decide this issue -- not courts."

It remains for Christians to defend God's definition of marriage, Moore and Walker said.

"We contend for marriage because marriage was not created by a state or a court, and cannot be redefined by a state or court," Moore said. "God designed the one-flesh union of marriage as an embedded icon of the union between Christ and His church, and sexual complementarity is essential to marriage."

Walker told BP, "Marriage may be under threat in the court of public opinion, but Christians must remember that marriage remains timeless and indestructible, for our Lord Jesus said that marriage is 'from the beginning.' And in this context, He wasn't referring to the 'beginning' of America or its Constitution, but of the cosmos."

The tide of judicial opinions in favor of gay marriage began after a June 2013 Supreme Court decision that the federal Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) violated "equal protection" under the Constitution by refusing to recognize gay marriages. The opinion meant same-sex couples gained access to employee, Social Security, tax and other benefits previously limited to heterosexual couples.

In neither of two decisions on same-sex marriage the same day did the justices say states could not limit marriage to a man and a woman. Many defenders of male-female marriage, however, have contended the Supreme Court provided the framework for legalizing gay marriage throughout the country.

Since June 2013, same-sex marriage advocates have won in court 37 times -- three in federal appeals court, 21 in federal court and 13 in state court, according to Freedom to Marry, a leading advocate for the legalization of gay marriage. Several of those rulings have been stayed from enforcement while under appeal.

Before Simmons' ruling in Tennessee, decisions by state judges in Mississippi and Florida were the only ones to conflict with the pro-gay marriage trend, according to SCOTUSblog, which tracks developments at the Supreme Court.

Same-sex marriage is legal already in 19 states and the District of Columbia. Among the states with legalized gay marriage are all those in the Northeast and on the West Coast.

A survey in March showed public opinion on same-sex marriage has essentially flipped in the last decade. That poll by The Washington Post and ABC News found 59 percent of Americans support same-sex marriage, while 34 percent oppose it. In 2004, the same survey showed 38 percent favored legalizing gay marriage and 59 percent opposed it.

Simmons' ruling came in the case of two men who were married in Iowa in 2010 but wanted a divorce in Roane County, which is in eastern Tennessee. State law, however, not only limits marriage to a man and a woman but refuses to recognize same-sex marriages from other states.

The Supreme Court, even in invalidating part of DOMA, refused to stipulate that a state must recognize same-sex marriage, Simmons wrote. The high court's DOMA decision "is concerned with the definition of marriage, only as it applies to federal laws, and does not give an opinion concerning whether one State must accept as valid a same-sex marriage allowed in another State," he wrote.

Ryan Anderson, who specializes in marriage and religious freedom issues for the Heritage Foundation, commended Simmons' ruling in an Aug. 12 blog post.

"Our federal Constitution is silent on what marriage is," Anderson wrote. "Judges should not insert their own policy preferences about marriage and declare them to be required by the Constitution. ... We do not need a court-imposed 50-state solution. The courts should not force states to abandon caution in the face of a social experiment like the redefinition of marriage."

One federal appeals court also may be prepared to buck the judicial pattern. The Sixth Circuit Court in Cincinnati heard oral arguments Aug. 6 regarding laws in Kentucky, Michigan, Ohio and Tennessee either restricting marriage to a man and a woman or refusing to recognize gay marriages from other states. Two members of the three-judge panel appeared reticent to strike down the laws, according to reports by The New York Times and The Washington Post.


Tom Strode is the Washington bureau chief for Baptist Press. Get Baptist Press headlines and breaking news on Twitter (@BaptistPress), Facebook (Facebook.com/BaptistPress) and in your email (baptistpress.com/SubscribeBP.asp).