Same-sex marriage: A guide to covering the debate

In the court of public opinion, gay marriage seems increasingly ascendant, with polls showing a rapid rise in acceptance and particularly strong support among younger generations. For religious conservatives who oppose same-sex marriage, the movement toward greater acceptance of it in the culture and in the law portends a long-running battle in the face of decreasing public support.

But even religious groups that are more supportive of gay rights may face challenges when same-sex marriage becomes a legal reality.

In New York, for instance, Episcopal Church leaders were divided on whether to allow their clergy to officiate at same-sex weddings because the church itself is still developing rites for blessing same-sex unions.

The New York example highlights how much the struggle over the role of gays and lesbians in religious communities intersects the battle of gay rights in the secular world. The two efforts are connected but often deploy different arguments and with varying degrees of success and failure.

Update: Oct. 7, 2014

On Oct. 6, 2014, the Supreme Court declined to hear appeals from five states regarding laws that legalized same-sex marriage, increasing the number of states that allow gay marriage from 19 to 30:

  • Read an Oct. 7, 2014, New York Times story about the court’s decision not to take up same-sex marriage appeals.
  • View a series of USA Today maps that shows the states that currently allow same-sex marriage, those that ban it and ones with pending appeals.

Meanwhile, the United Methodist Church, the nation’s largest Protestant denomination, continues to wrestle with issues of same-sex marriage and gay clergy:

  • Read an Oct. 6, 2014, Religion News Service story  about 36 UMC pastors who faced church discipline for presiding at a single same-sex marriage.
  • Read a May 13, 2014, Religion News Service story about the impasse in the church over same-sex marriage.

On Oct. 2, 2014, GLAAD and the Human Rights Campaign released a resource guide for journalists covering LGBT issues during the midterm elections to help them “stop conflating bigotry with religious faith.”

Background

The U.S. Supreme Court took up two cases the week of March 25, 2013, on the fiercely debated moral question of same-sex marriage, and religious voices on both sides of the issue weighed in on what could become pivotal decisions in the court’s — and the nation’s — history.

As a court of law, though, the Supreme Court will focus not on popular sentiment, but on the constitutionality of the federal Defense of Marriage Act and of California’s voter initiative, known as Proposition 8, banning same-sex marriage in that state.

The high court heard arguments in the Prop 8 case on March, 26, 2013 and on DOMA the following day. Decisions in the two cases are expected by the end of June.

Faith groups on both sides of the issue marked the week’s legal developments with special prayer services, rallies and observances. Advocates for same-sex marriage organized faith-focused events around the country to show support for the cause, while opponents called for nationwide prayers and fasting.

Story ideas for reporters

  • What will conservatives do if the state amendment efforts fail? What will gay advocates do if the efforts succeed? And what will both groups do about the proposed federal constitutional amendment? There are many on both sides who have worked for decades for movement on this issue, either in government or in religious organizations. Do they sense that a decisive moment, finally, is at hand?
  • Many people cite religious beliefs as a strong factor in their opinions about same-sex marriage. How do people with varying opinions say their religious beliefs affect their opinions on the how the debate and lobbying on the issue are conducted? On how people with conflicting opinions should treat each other once the matter is decided is some way, whether by state or national legislation or court ruling?
  • Talk to the many people whose lives are somehow left in limbo during this debate. Some examples: same-sex couples who are now marrying who may later face a constitutional amendment banning their marriage; children of same-sex couples; wedding planners or financial advisers who are making plans for what they hope is an explosion of business from gay couples who plan to marry and need help making plans; members of gay couples whose partners want to marry and they don’t, or vice versa; same-sex couples who have participated in commitment ceremonies but have since broken up; people who believe that they have faced discrimination because their same-sex relationship is public; gay teenagers who may face a decision about whether to officially marry, or see that possibility erased; gay partners who are hoping to marry for child custody or economic reasons; same-sex relationships in which one partner is dying and the couple wishes to be married; religious homosexuals who see marriage as a sacred and lifetime vow before God who are watching the mad rush to the altar in some places.
  • And: parents facing questions from their children about what the same-sex marriage debate is about; families who have struggled with a gay child’s relationship because of their own beliefs about homosexuality who now may see their government either reject or condone that relationship in some way; youth ministers and leaders of various faith groups who are fielding questions from kids; public school teachers who may be facing questions from students but who must keep their own religious views out of discussions; people who work in the expanding movement to promote, encourage and improve marriages amid a high divorce rate.
  • Talk to people to find out whether they are changing their opinion about gay relationships, gay marriage or the government’s role in them as they watch lobbying from both sides and as weddings take place in some places. What is changing their opinion? Did they think their opinion could ever change? If they say their opinion hasn’t changed, do they think anything could change it?
  • Look for places to set stories where people with different opinions on same-sex marriage are in dialogue with each other. For example, religious congregations which include both homosexual and heterosexual members; religious congregations which may have a gay clergy leader not because they wanted one but because a clergy shortage left them with few choices; religious denominations (or regions or groups within them) that are participating in “discernment” processes designed to put people with different opinions in dialogue with each other in order to work toward reconciliation and a peaceful way to move forward together; support groups for parents with gay children where parents may have different levels of acceptance of homosexuality. What advice do they have for the country as it debates this divisive issue?

General resources

  • Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life

    The Pew Forum on Religion Religion & Public Life is a project of the Pew Research Center. The Pew Forum seeks to promote a deeper understanding of issues at the intersection of religion and public affairs by conducting surveys, demographic analyses and other social science research on important aspects of religion and public life in the U.S. and around the world.

    The Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life tracks news developments and conducts polling on the subject.

News articles

Polls

Where things stand

Same-sex marriage

Twelve states (plus the District of Columbia) have taken steps to allow same-sex marriages: MassachusettsConnecticutIowaVermontNew HampshireNew YorkWashingtonMaryland, Delaware, Minnesota, Rhode Island and Maine. Massachusetts was first, permitting such unions beginning May 17, 2004. The state Legislature acted to allow the marriages after a November 2003 Massachusetts Supreme Court ruling that declared the state’s marriage law discriminatory.

California briefly allowed same-sex marriages in 2008 but stopped doing so after voters approved the state constitutional amendment known as Proposition 8 later that year. A federal district judge in 2010 ruled that the amendment, which defined marriage as between one man and one woman, violated the U.S. Constitution’s equal-protection provisions. An appeals court panel also deemed the measure unconstitutional, setting the stage for the Supreme Court’s hearing of arguments in the case this week.

  • See the Massachusetts Trial Court Law Libraries’ page on that state’s same-sex marriage law. The site includes links to many resources.
  • Lamba Legal lists countries and states that allow gay couples to marry or that recognize or provide protections for same-sex relationships through other means. Note that the publication was last updated in September 2011, so it doesn’t reflect recent changes.

Civil unions and domestic partnerships

According to the National Conference of State Legislatures:

  • Civil unions, which typically provide the same state spousal rights and duties as traditional marriage, have been approved in Hawaii, Illinois, New Jersey and Colorado. (Colorado is the latest state to join this group. Its new law took effect May 1, 2013.)
  • Domestic partnerships granting nearly all state spousal rights to unmarried couples are permitted in California, Oregon, Nevada and Washington.
  • Domestic partnerships granting only some state spousal rights to unmarried couples can be entered into in Hawaii, Maine, Wisconsin and the District of Columbia.

State constitutional amendments/legislation

More than three dozen states have statutes and/or constitutional provisions that effectively ban same-sex marriage. Marriage alternatives – civil unions or domestic partnerships – are accepted in some of these states.

Here are resources for checking on action on amendments and legislation throughout the nation.

  • The National Conference of State Legislatures maintains a list of states with Defense of Marriage Acts or constitutional language defining marriage.
  • Stateline.org updates its site with news of state legislative activity.

Courts

Federal and state courts regularly consider cases involving same-sex marriages or civil unions, even if those legal statuses aren’t conferred in their states. For example, in 2008, before New York allowed same-sex marriage, a five-judge appellate panel in that state said that two lesbians who had married in Canada were entitled to legal recognition of the relationship by the state of New York. One of the women was suing over denial of health-care benefits to the other.

Several websites track action in the courts:

Congress

In 1996, Congress passed and President Bill Clinton signed the Defense of Marriage Act permitting states to refuse to recognize same-sex marriages performed elsewhere and defining marriage as between one man and one woman. The law prevents the U.S. government from extending federal benefits to couples in same-sex marriages. (Read Wikipedia’s backgrounder.)

Bills aimed at repealing DOMA have been introduced by members of Congress in 2009 and 2011, and in February 2011, the Obama administration announced that it would no longer defend the portion of the act that blocks federal recognition of same-sex marriage. The U.S. House of Representatives, led by Speaker John Boehner, responded by authorizing its legal counsel to defend DOMA since the Justice Department would not.

Efforts were made in 2004 and 2006 to amend the federal Constitution, based in part on fears that a mere statute could be found unconstitutional by the U.S. Supreme Court. An amendment would have to be approved by 67 senators and two-thirds of the House of Representatives, then be ratified in at least 38 states. So far, supporters have not been able to garner the needed congressional support. Read a history of these efforts at ReligiousTolerance.org and background with external links at Wikipedia.

Faith groups' policies

Below is a snapshot of where notable religious denominations stand on gay marriage.

For general information, see:

Catholic

Evangelical protestants

  • Southern Baptist Convention: The nation’s largest Protestant denomination says in its “basic beliefs” that “Marriage is the uniting of one man and one woman in covenant commitment for a lifetime.”
  • American Baptist Churches USA: In November 2005, the national body declared that “God’s design for sexual intimacy places it within the context of marriage between one man and one woman” and that “the practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Biblical teaching.” The board of the American Baptist Churches Pacific Southwest region voted to separate from the parent body, however, over what was described as the larger group’s refusal to deal with lax policies of some congregations toward homosexuality. Read a May 18, 2006, Baptist Press article about the situation.

Mainline Protestants

  • United Church of Christ: The 25th biennial General Synod in July 2005 approved an “equal marriage rights for all” resolution, making it the first mainline Christian denomination to endorse gay marriage.
  • United Methodist Church: The second-largest Protestant denomination in the country and the largest mainline Protestant denomination rejected a proposal in 2008 to become more inclusive of gays and lesbians. An attempt at the 2012 General Conference likewise was rejected. The church’s Book of Discipline says, “We affirm the sanctity of the marriage covenant that is expressed in love, mutual support, personal commitment, and shared fidelity between a man and a woman.”
  • Evangelical Lutheran Church in America: In 2009, a churchwide assembly adopted a social statement on human sexuality that included a discussion of committed same-sex relationships but no consensus about them, saying, “We do not have agreement on whether this church should honor these relationships and uplift, shelter, and protect them or on precisely how it is appropriate to do so.” The assembly also adopted a resolution, though, stating “that the ELCA should commit itself to finding ways to allow congregations that choose to do so to recognize, support, and hold publicly accountable couples who wish to have lifelong, monogamous, same-gender relationships.”
  • Episcopal Church: The denomination has been in turmoil since Gene Robinson was elected as its first openly gay bishop in 2003. Its constitution defines marriage as “a physical and spiritual union of a man and a woman, entered into within the community of faith, by mutual consent of heart, mind, and will, and with intent that it be lifelong.” General Convention 2009 Resolution C056, however, says that bishops, “particularly those in dioceses within civil jurisdictions where same-gender marriage, civil unions, or domestic partnerships are legal, may provide generous pastoral response to meet the needs of members of this church.” In light of that, some bishops have given their priests permission to solemnize same-sex marriages. In 2012, the church provisionally approved a liturgy for blessing same-sex unions, but the rite is not called marriage.

Pentecostal

  • Church of God in Christ: In 2004 this African-American denomination issued a proclamation on marriage, saying “we declare our opposition to any deviation from traditional marriages of male and female.”
  • Assemblies of God USA

    Assemblies of God is a national and international organization that makes up the world’s largest Pentecostal denomination of some 66 million members and adherents worldwide, and over 3 million members in the U.S. The organization works to promote religion itself and aspects of practice to its members. The church’s four-fold mission is expressed through evangelism, discipleship, worship and compassion.

  • Calvary Chapel

    Calvary Chapel provides resources “that will bless and build up the body of Christ.” 

Judaism

  • Reform Judaism: Reform Judaism, the largest of the three main branches of Judaism in America, was the first to allow same-sex commitment ceremonies. In 2000 the Central Conference of American Rabbis, the organized rabbinate of Reform Judaism, approved a resolution allowing rabbis to officiate at gay and lesbian commitment ceremonies.
  • Conservative Judaism: In 2006, the Committee on Jewish Law and Standards of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism issued a ruling allowing rabbis and synagogues to ordain gay rabbis and perform or host same-sex commitment ceremonies. Rabbis and synagogues are also allowed to continue to not permit such ceremonies or ordain or hire gay rabbis. See a Dec. 7, 2006, Washington Post article about the vote and a July 3, 2007, Forward article about how synagogues were adapting to the new rule.
  • Orthodox Judaism: Opposes same-sex marriage. The Rabbinical Council of America was one of several Orthodox groups reaffirming that stand in May 2011, saying “the Orthodox Jewish world speaks with one voice, loud and clear.” The Orthodox Union issued a statement in June 2011 about New York’s decision to legalize gay marriage, expressing disagreement with the action but appreciation that the law protects religious liberties.

Islam

  • Islam prohibits same-sex marriage.

Other

  • Unitarian Universalist Association: It passed a resolution in 1996 supporting the legal right to same-sex marriage and urging UUA congregations to bless such marriages. The church has been active at the state and national levels in efforts to allow gay marriage.
  • Metropolitan Community Church: The church, whose motto is “sexuality and spirituality rejoined,” welcomes gays, lesbians, transgendered people and bisexuals; encourages the blessing of same-sex marriages; and supports marriage-equality efforts.
  • Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints: It has declared that allowing same-sex marriage would “make light of the very serious and sacred foundation of God-sanctioned marriage and its very purpose, the rearing of families.”

National sources

Favoring same-sex marriage

  • The American Academy of Pediatrics

    The American Academy of Pediatrics is an organization of 60,000 pediatricians committed to the optimal physical, mental, and social health and well-being for all infants, children, adolescents, and young adults.

    It announced in March 2013 that it supports same-sex marriage to promote the well-being of children of lesbians and gays.

  • Interfaith Alliance

    The Interfaith Alliance is the national nonpartisan advocacy voice of the interfaith movement. Media inquiries can be submitted through a form on the alliance’s website.

    It praised President Barack Obama when he announced his support for same-sex marriage in May 2012.

    Contact: 202-265-3000.

Opposing same-sex marriage

  • Family Research Council

    The Family Research Council is a Christian organization promoting the traditional family unit and the Judeo-Christian value system upon which it is built.

    It devotes a webpage to marriage and family issues. The page includes links to brochures, amicus briefs and other materials on same-sex marriage.

    Contact: 866-372-6397.
  • National Association of Evangelicals

    The National Association of Evangelicals is an organization that includes 45,000 congregations from 40 member denominations, individual congregations from an additional 27 denominations, and 250 parachurch ministries and educational institutions. Its mission is to gather, strengthen and expand the evangelical community. Galen Carey is vice president for government relations.

    It supports efforts to uphold the federal Defense of Marriage Act.

    Contact: 202-789-1011.
  • Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints

    Headquartered in Salt Lake City, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has a presence in several countries.

    It strongly opposes same-sex marriages and has spent millions of dollars campaigning against such unions.

    Contact: 801-240-1670.

Legal experts

  • Jay Sekulow

    Jay Sekulow is chief counsel at the American Center for Law and Justice in Washington, D.C., a leading pro-life religious legal advocacy group that frequently litigates on behalf of religious groups.

  • Ken Choe

    Ken Choe is Deputy General Counsel and Counselor to the Office of Health Reform at the Department of Health and Human Services. Before that, Choe was a Senior Staff Attorney at the LGBT Rights and AIDS Projects of the national ACLU. He also served as a political appointee in the Clinton Administration focusing on health care law and policy.

  • Jon W. Davidson

    Jon W. Davidson is Legal Director at Lambda Legal, a national legal organization committed to achieving full recognition of the civil rights of lesbians, gay men, bisexuals, transgender people and those with HIV.

    Contact: 213-382-7600.
  • Michael C. Dorf

    Michael C. Dorf is a professor at Columbia University Law School. He is an expert on constitutional law.

  • Vikram Amar

    Vikram Amar is a professor of law at the University of Illinois College of Law and an expert on constitutional law.

  • Michael J. Klarman

    Michael J. Klarman is a professor of law at Harvard University. He is an expert in constitutional law, constitutional theory and constitutional history.

Regional sources

In the Northeast

  • Nancy Cott

    Nancy Cott is a history professor at Harvard and author of Public Vows: A History of Marriage and the Nation (Harvard University Press, 2001).

  • Margaret A. Farley

    Margaret A. Farley is the Gilbert L. Stark professor emerita of Christian ethics at Yale Divinity School in New Haven, Conn. She is Catholic and has written widely about Christian sexual ethics.

  • Mary Hobgood

    Mary Hobgood is an associate professor of religious studies at Holy Cross College in Worcester, Mass. She wrote the books Catholic Social Teaching and Economic Theory: Paradigms in Conflict (Temple University Press, l991) and Dismantling Privilege: An Ethics of Accountability (Pilgrim Press, 2000).

  • Marvin M. Ellison

    Marvin M. Ellison is Willard S. Bass Professor of Christian Ethics at Bangor Theological Seminary in Maine, author of Same-Sex Marriage? A Christian Ethical Analysis and an ordained minister in the Presbyterian Church (USA).

  • Barbara A. Babb

    Barbara A. Babb is a family law professor at the University of Baltimore in Maryland. She has spoken on the legal issues involved with same-sex marriages.

  • Carol Sanger

    Carol Sanger teaches family law at Columbia University Law School in New York City.

  • David McCarthy

    David McCarthy is a professor of theology at Mount St. Mary’s College in Emmitsburg, Md. He wrote the article “Homosexuality and the Practice of Marriage” for the journal Modern Theology.

  • Rebecca T. Alpert

    Rebecca T. Alpert is a rabbi and an associate professor of religion and women’s studies at Temple University in Philadelphia, Penn. She writes on baseball, queer culture and religion.

  • Raymond C. O’Brien

    The Rev. Raymond C. O’Brien is a law professor at Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C. He wrote the article “Single Gender Marriage: A Religious Perspective” for the journal Temple Political & Civil Rights Law Review.

  • Jonathan Rauch

    Jonathan Rauch is an Atlantic Monthly correspondent, a National Journal columnist and the author of Gay Marriage: Why It Is Good for Gays, Good for Straights, and Good for America (Times Books, 2004).

In the South

  • Cynthia S. W. Crysdale

    Cynthia S. W. Crysdale is associate professor for the School of Theology and Religious Studies at Sewanee: The University of the South. She wrote “Christian Marriage and Homosexual Monogamy” for the book Our Selves, Our Souls and Bodies: Sexuality and the Household of God (Crowley Press, 1996).

  • James Guth

    James Guth is a professor of politics and international affairs at Furman University in Greenville, S.C. He has written widely on the emergence of Christian conservatives in the political arena.

  • John Witte Jr.

    John Witte Jr. directs the Center for the Study of Law and Religion at Emory University, where he also teaches law. He is an expert on legal issues related to marriage, family, Christianity and religious freedom. His books include Church, State and Family: Reconciling Traditional Teachings and Modern Liberties and Religion and the American Constitutional Experiment.

  • Theodore Caplow

    Theodore Caplow is a professor of sociology at the University of Virginia in Charlotte. He tracks social changes in families.

  • Bonnie Miller-McLemore

    Bonnie Miller-McLemore is a professor of religion, psychology and culture at Vanderbilt University Divinity School in Nashville, Tenn., and co-author of From Culture Wars to Common Ground: Religion and the American Family Debate (2000). She teaches courses on women and religion, theology and science, as well as parenting, families and children.

  • Bryan K. Fair

    Bryan K. Fair is a professor at the University of Alabama School of Law, where his specialties include the First Amendment.

  • Ellen Riggle

    Ellen Riggle is a political science professor at the University of Kentucky in Lexington. She examined the use of legal documents by same-sex couples to protect and maintain their relationships.

  • Sherry Rostosky

    Sherry Rostosky is an assistant professor at the University of Kentucky in Lexington. She is an expert on same-sex marriages.

  • Dr. Mark Lowery

    Dr. Mark Lowery is a professor of theology at the University of Dallas, an independent Catholic school in Irving, Texas. Lowery has written extensively on the traditional Christian view of sexuality.

In the Midwest

  • Andrew Koppelman

    Andrew Koppelman is a professor at Northwestern University Law School in Evanston, Ill., where he teaches law and political science. His books include Antidiscrimination Law and Social Equality (Yale University Press, 1996), The Gay Rights Question in Contemporary American Law (University of Chicago Press, 2002) and Defending American Religious Neutrality (Harvard University Press, 2012). His position is that waivers are appropriate and that anti-discrimination rules are being applied “mindlessly.”

  • Gerard V. Bradley

    Gerard V. Bradley is a law professor at the University of Notre Dame. He wrote the article “Same-Sex Marriage: Our Final Answer?” for the Notre Dame Journal of Law, Ethics & Public Policy.

  • Marie Failinger

    Marie Failinger teaches law at Hamline University in St. Paul and edits The Journal of Law and Religion.

  • Horace L. Griffin

    Horace L. Griffin is an associate professor of pastoral theology at Pacific School of Religion in Berkeley, Calif. He has written several scholarly articles on theology and homosexuality.

  • Margaret F. Brinig

    Margaret F. Brinig is the Fritz Duda Family Chair in Law at the University of Notre Dame School of Law. She was the former Edward A. Howry Distinguished Professor at the University of Iowa. She focuses primarily on family law, interdisciplinary seminars centering on family issues, and contracts. She is author of From Contract to Covenant: Beyond the Law and Economics of the Family (Harvard University Press, 2000).

In the West

  • Leo Godzich

    Leo Godzich is head of the National Association of Marriage Enhancement in Phoenix. His group opposes same-sex marriage.

  • Casey Self

    Casey Self is director of cross-college advising services for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered issues at Arizona State University in Tempe, Ariz.

  • Fenton Johnson

    Fenton Johnson is a widely published commentator and author, including Keeping Faith: A Skeptic’s Journey (Houghton Mifflin, 2003). He is gay and practices Christianity and Buddhism. He is on the faculty of the creative writing program at the University of Arizona.

  • Gilbert Herdt

    Gilbert Herdt is professor of sexuality and anthropology at San Francisco State University and director of the National Sexuality Resource Center.

  • The Williams Institute

    The Williams Institute focuses on sexual-orientation law and public policy, and its website has a number of resources on same-sex marriage. Scholars from the think tank, which is based at California’s UCLA law school, participated in friend-of-the-court briefs in both March 2013 cases before they went the Supreme Court.

  • Ann Taves

    Ann Taves is professor at the University of California – Santa Barbara. She wrote the article “Religion and Same-Sex Relations in the American Context” for the Religious Studies Review.

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