Proposition 8 and Religious EqualityFebruary 13, 2012
The march toward full legal recognition of same-sex couples has been building up momentum this week with a surprising jump in velocity, beginning with the repeal of Proposition 8. In a 2-1 vote, the Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled on Tuesday, 7 February, that the voter-approved ban on gay marriage was unconstitutional. But why should this matter to ULC Ministries ministers? One reason is that current laws in states like California discriminate against churches like the ULC Ministries because they solemnize same-sex marriages.
For a short period, all ULC weddings had equal legal status. The Proposition 8 battle began in 2008 when the California Supreme Court ruled the state’s ban on same-sex marriage unconstitutional. 18,000 marriage licenses were issued to same-sex couples and ULC ministers could legally solemnize same-sex weddings until voters reversed the court’s decision later that year in a ballot initiative sponsored and financed largely be conservative religious organizations such as the Mormon church. Ministers could no longer officiate same-sex wedding ceremonies and have them legally recognized by the state. In 2010, however, U.S. District Judge Vaughan Walker of San Francisco struck down the law, arguing that it violated the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment to the United States. When then-governor Arnold Schwarzenegger announced he would not challenge Walker’s decision, it was appealed by conservative groups like ProtectMarriage.com (the measure’s official sponsor), preventing ULC ministers from resuming legally-sanctioned same-sex weddings.
That decision was upheld Tuesday by the Ninth Circuit Court. In the ruling opinion, Judge Stephen Reinhardt wrote that Proposition 8 was unconstitutional, and that the state had no compelling interest in defending it: “[it] serves no purpose, and has no effect, other than to lessen the status and human dignity of gays and lesbians in California, and to officially reclassify their relationships and families as inferior to those of opposite-sex couples”. Reinhardt’s decision was motivated in large part by a 1996 precedent by U.S. Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy, a conservative who tends to vote in favor of gay rights. In that ruling, Justice Kennedy voted to overrule a Colorado referendum that would have repealed antidiscrimination laws passed by local governments. Nevertheless, same-sex marriages performed by friends and relatives who get ordained online will not be recognized any time soon in California: the ruling takes two weeks to go into effect, and Andy Pugno, ProtectMarriage.com’s general counsel, has vowed to appeal the ruling, staying the verdict even longer. Opponents may either ask a larger 11-member judicial panel to re-hear the case, or appeal it all the way to the Supreme Court.
Until a federal court verdict overturning the measure takes effect, ULC pastors and will be unable to have their same-sex unions recognized by the state. But is this fair? Current California law only recognizes heterosexual unions, but some churches recognize same-sex unions, so, when marriage licenses are being issued, California law favors churches which don’t recognize same-sex unions over those which do (though, at this time, Universal Life Church ministers are able to perform wedding ceremonies in California without any difficulties). If we think about it, this constitutes a form of religious discrimination against churches which honor same-sex weddings, including the ULC Ministries. Essentially, the government is saying it will grant marriage licenses for all weddings performed by churches which don’t recognize same-sex couples, but only for some weddings performed by churches which do recognize such couples. We begin to see the legal problems with this position. Does it violate the Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution? After all, a person who decides to become a minister in the ULC Ministries to marry same-sex couples might argue that the government is discriminating against him or her based on his or her religious belief that marriage is the union of two loving, committed adult persons. So, Proposition 8 is not just a problem for gay and lesbian couples–it is also a problem for the friends and family members who marry them, too.
Tuesday’s decision was a victory for marriage equality advocates, but we still have a long way to go until we win the battle. And winning this battle is not only important for couples themselves, but also for the ministers who marry them, including ULC wedding officiants. The appeals court’s decision only affects California law, which means other states will have their own legal battles to fight, but there is a light at the end of the tunnel: the day after the court’s decision, the Washington state legislature passed a marriage equality bill and sent it off to the governor, who said she will sign it, and similar bills are either being considered or have been introduced in New Jersey, Maryland, and Illinois. And the pace isn’t dropping. Gradually, step-by-step, the states will fall in line with the progressive ideas embraced by this organization – and an increasingly-large amount of Americans – about the institution of marriage; once they do, all ULC ministers will enjoy equal protection under the law.
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