The recent Supreme Court decision to overturn the Defense of Marriage Act and its decision -- on a legal technicality -- to hand back California's Proposition 8 to the lower court serve as victories for gay and lesbian couples in their long-standing struggle for equality in American life.
The decision on DOMA allows gay and lesbian married couples to take advantage of federal benefits that heterosexual couples have when it comes to issues such as filing federal income taxes and survivors' benefits on Social Security. The caveat is that they can only receive these benefits if they live in states that legalize same-sex marriages. If they live in the rest of the 38 states, where gay marriage is not legal, then nothing has changed from the recent Supreme Court decision.
The basic change is that the United States now recognizes the validity of gay marriage in the 12 states that currently legalize gay marriage in America today. The decision on Proposition 8 will leave in place the lower court ruling in California, which had originally struck down Proposition 8. Let's leave that to the experts on constitutional law.
What does it all mean from a religious perspective? Let's face it, in the religious community, liberals will herald these two decisions and point to the shifting center of gravity in American society toward accepting the legitimacy of gay and lesbian marriage. Conservatives, on the other hand, will decry the recent decisions as further proof of the eroding moral infrastructure of America. Both sides will make political hay of these court decisions to advance their organizational agendas and religious ideologies.
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The real question is, where does the middle ground of Americans stand now that their Supreme Court has allowed the federal government to officially, in the above mentioned circumstances, sanction gay marriage by giving it equal status under the law as heterosexual marriage? More specifically, will these rulings influence clergy to expand their outreach both pastorally and programmatically to gay individuals and communities? In other words, might we see more clergy performing gay marriages now that the Supreme Court has struck down DOMA?
The fundamental challenge for many clergy from the Jewish, Christian and Muslim traditions is the inherited religious teachings that have been passed down over the millennium. These Scriptures and their post-Scriptural writings are considered binding and are cited to justify the prohibitions against officiating or recognizing gay marriages, or for the ordaining of openly gay clergy.
Today's clergy will balance between the weight of that history versus the weight of history in the making. And so it comes down to a matter of conscience, weighing all these factors into a personal decision as to whether a clergyperson can represent their religion honestly and with integrity by adapting their intellectual and faith-based understandings to modern-day realities while still adhering to the ancient truths that have defined their calling.
Another factor that will impact the future of clergy officiation at gay and lesbian marriages will be age. Younger clergy who have grown up in an era without the same degree of ingrained attitudes and prejudices against LGBT couples will probably take a more open viewpoint toward officiation and pastoral outreach. The long-standing attitude that has enabled conservatives to accept homosexuals in their houses of worship but "reject the sin" will find less resonance even in more moderate conservative branches of religion. The point is that as our popular culture becomes more comfortable talking about gay people and seeing them simply as people wanting to live their lives like anyone else and not having any agenda to "convince others to adopt the gay lifestyle," more Americans will ultimately be open to gay married couples alongside heterosexual couples.
Clearly the chances of legalizing gay marriage in South Carolina are remote. We see the divisiveness of the issue, for example, in the recent breakup of the Episcopal Church in this state. Both clergy and laypeople are struggling to reconcile their interpretations of Scripture with new interpretations that challenge the theological heritage of many religious faith traditions. There may never be unanimity from the religious community in accepting of gays and lesbians in their homosexuality. Yet, the moderates who represent the branches of these religious traditions and their successors are willing to ask questions and see that times do change.
The Supreme Court's decision will move the national conversation further toward dialogue and greater understanding about how and why the right to marriage transcends sexual orientation issues. Religion will occupy a parallel track in the public square. Clergy will have choices to make deciding what eternal truths mean when discussing human beings and their sexual orientation. It will no longer be a secret topic forbidden for discussion. My hope is that clergy will search their conscience when reading the Scriptures and praying for the inspiration from God to give them guidance. That time is not in the future. It is now.
Columnist Rabbi Brad L. Bloom is the rabbi at Congregation Beth Yam on Hilton Head Island. He can be reached at 843-689-2178. Read his blog at www.fusion613.blogspot.com and follow him on Twitter, @rabbibloom.