Should Catholics Opposed to Marriage Equality Use Civil Disobedience?

In the wake of the Supreme Court’s marriage ruling, some government officials and religious leaders who oppose the decision have been calling for citizens and congregants to actively protest the advent of marriage equality.  Some are using the language of conscientious objection and civil disobedience.

Is it proper to use such descriptions?  Is preventing a marriage for a gay or lesbian couple justified by moral principles?  Should government officials who, because of religious principles, disagree with the Court’s decision on marriage, be allowed not to issue licenses or perform ceremonies?

Questions like these are going to be debated hotly in the coming months,  The Catholic community will not be exempt from such discussions either.  At least two Catholic bishops have already used such language in their reaction statements to the court’s decisions. Yet, a religious ethics scholar has also recently showed why the use of “conscientious objection” and “civil disobedience” are totally incorrect for the question of marriage equality.

Bishop Joseph Strickland

First, let’s look at what the two bishops have said.  Bishop Joseph Strickland, Diocese of Tyler, Texas, in a June 26th statement said the Court’s decision was

“unjust and immoral, and it is our duty to clearly and emphatically oppose it.”

Later in the statement, Strickland goes on to say:

“We know that unjust laws and other measures contrary to the moral order are not binding in conscience, thus we must now exercise our right to conscientious objection against this interpretation of our law. . . “

Bishop Thomas Tobin

The Providence Journal reported on Rhode Island’s Bishop Thomas Tobin, who, on July 1st, posted an encouraging statement on Facebook for a Texas court clerk who, at first, refused to issue marriage licenses to lesbian and gay couples. (She has since relented.) Tobin’s statement said, in part:

“We need many more conscientious objectors – public officials, private businesses, advertisers, religious leaders, and family members, people of courage who will abide by their conscience, protect their religious rights, and not support or enable the furtherance of this moral aberration – so called, ‘same-sex marriage.’ “

David Gushee

But a Christian ethicist has recently refuted such dramatic calls to civil disobedience and conscientious objection in the face of marriage equality by noting that the response does not fit the situation.  Rev. Dr. David Gushee, Distinguished University Professor of Christian Ethics and Director of the Center for Theology and Public Life at Mercer University, Georgia, penned an an essay for Religion News Service entitled “Why civil disobedience is irrelevant to gay marriage.”

Here’s the gist of Gushee’s analysis of civil disobedience:

Here’s a good definition: If a government mandates what religious people believe God forbids, or forbids what religious people believe God mandates, civil disobedience may be required. . . .

The federal government has not mandated that houses of worship or clergy perform gay marriages. Nor has it forbidden congregations or clergy from performing such nuptials. Government has permitted gay marriages — and thus the solemnization of these marriages by whoever is authorized to offer it.

Therefore, those who wish to perform gay weddings are free to do so, and those who do not wish to perform them are free to decline. There are no legitimate grounds for civil disobedience here.

Gushee also takes on the more particular case of government officials who oppose marriage equality on religious grounds:

“In my view, regardless of whether state officials like a particular law, they are required to submit to it in the performance of their duties — or should resign from office.

“Government clerks are not religious officials. Nor are they simply individual citizens who might find a government’s law to be a violation of conscience. They are on the state payroll. Refusal to adhere to or enforce the law on the part of a government official is dereliction of duty, not civil disobedience.”

And he doesn’t shy away from perhaps the thorniest church/state question regarding marriage equality:  will the government require religious institutions to adopt policies which treat all married couples–gay, lesbian, heterosexual–equally?  Gushee does not mince words in his answer:

“It seems very unlikely that government would simply mandate that religious organizations change such policies. It might, however, withdraw tax-exempt status, not from congregations, but from religious organizations.

“Or it might ban federal funds, such as government social-service contracts, research grants or student loans, from going to such organizations. This is not the same thing as simply banning such organizations from adhering to their preferred policies, but for many organizations it remains a nightmare scenario.”

There will be consequences for religious institutions if they do not honor the marriage laws, but they will not be anywhere near the imagined threat that some leaders are describing.  Instead, the consequences will be more practical.  Gushee writes:

“. . . [N]o organizational leader will be arrested or imprisoned if these organizations stick to their policies, and if government withdraws financial assistance (by no means a certainty).

“No organization will be raided and padlocked. No civil disobedience strategy will be relevant.

“Instead, such organizations essentially will be shut out from using government dollars, with predictably scary effects on their bottom lines and reputations.”

But losing government money is not their only option.  Gushee suggests other alternatives:

“They could change the relevant policies, perhaps under protest, while claiming no change in their values. They could do this because they decide that their organizational mission is too important to let it wither because of its LGBT policies.

“Or, of course, they could take this as an opportunity to dig deeper and actually reconsider their beliefs about LGBT people and their relationships, as some of us have already done.”

Civil disobedience and conscientious objection give a moral gravity to a religious person’s objections to marriage equality law.  But as strategies to oppose them, they are not practical or appropriate.

As I’ve argued before here on Bondings 2.0, people with religious objections to civil laws have several options to respond in religious ways.  Sacrificing something, like government grants, may be involved, and sacrifice is a treasured religious response. Peace activists have endured jail and other sacrifices for resisting war taxes.  Why aren’t religious opponents against marriage equality advocating such sacrifices instead of arguing for discrimination?

–Francis DeBernardo, New Ways Ministry

Related post

Bondings 2.0: Sacrificing Profits to Avoid Discrimination and Protect Religious Freedom



10 replies
  1. Brian Kneeland
    Brian Kneeland says:

    I’m sorry – but I don’t understand all of the upset! The Catholic Church is not being forced to do anything they don’t want to do! Where does civil disobedience come from? Look – if you work in a retail store and know that a product is making a huge profit because it is scarce – then the immoral is being done! Two people who love each other is not morally wrong – especially when they have a well informed conscience! The bishops speak out of both sides of their mouths! As for me and mine, we will follow the Lord!

  2. Paula Ruddy
    Paula Ruddy says:

    Thanks for continuing to counter the U.S. bishops with logic. Lots of fuzzy thinking under those mitres!

  3. Anton
    Anton says:

    Yes, I think that thinking Catholics should use “conscientious objection:” THAT IS, don’t stop going to church, necessarily, unless you can no longer listen to the stupidity being preached from the pulpit, BUT DO STOP PUTTING MONEY IN THE COLLECTION BASKET. That will get bishops and pastors to think more clearly. Lack of funds clears up fuzzy non-thinking.

  4. Anton
    Anton says:

    Today is Bastille Day!! Time to knock down the prisons of conscience created and maintained by people who think they know better.

    • Friends
      Friends says:

      I second Brian Kneeland’s “AMEN” to Anton, as posted above. These virtually cloistered guys in their absurd red beanies are living in their own private world, which has NOTHING TO DO with the practical lives and beliefs of the vast majority of the Catholic laity — most especially (but not limited to) active Catholics under 40. The vast majority of married practicing Catholics of child-bearing age use medical contraception — in direct defiance of the executive edicts of the Red Beanies. Why don’t the “Beanies” also attack this contraceptive behavior? Because they recognize that it’s a battle they can’t possibly win. And if they keep going after the now-established legal legitimacy of same-sex civil marriage — as they seem wont to do — they’re going to lose a whole other younger generation of Catholics as well. What will be left of the Church at that point, especially in the developed Western countries? Short answer: not much. For guys with advanced academic degrees, they seem mighty dense about basic social and demographic realities, which are perfectly obvious to the whole rest of the Christian community.

  5. Sharon Rose
    Sharon Rose says:

    I support marriage equality. Churches can make their rules but it is inappropriate to force others to follow those rules. I am a practicing Catholicc. I am a Lesbian. And I am not going away. I listen to homilies that stray into the path of politics which I find offensive. I desire to hear spiritual teachings at Mass. If the employees of the government cannot do their job then they need to get another job. At times it is difficult being a Catholic and I wish at times the higher ups would focus on the Gospel message of love rather than the recent political comments. In my opinion they look ignorant, uneducated and ridiculous.

  6. Nobie Cop
    Nobie Cop says:

    If memory serves me correctly, since the 1970’s we have seen the steady emergence of the LGBT movement. At first their presence was small but continued to grow. Consequently, all citizens have been listening to debates over gay and straight rights for over four decades. As times has gone by, support for gay rights and equity have clearly and steadily been climbing and winning the hearts and minds of people whether they be straight, gay, religious, humanitarian…

    If the vote in Ireland tells us anything, it underscores the fact that after watching this debate for 45 years, that people are siding with LGBT perspectives and have been giving less and less support to sectors that oppose equity. Now, we have religious leaders claiming LGBT issues like marriage equality shall undermine the family, lead to national destruction and just about every calamity will result from equity. This seems like fear mongering as there is no evidence for such statements. We can look to nations that have honored LGBT equality for over 20 years and there is no evidence that such fears are substantiated by experiential evidence.

    As pointed out, no religious institutions are being forced to act in any manner. No church is forced to marry or accept members with LGBT orientations. It seems we are seeing churches having trouble excepting sociological/societal change and are trying to reverse history. There appears to be a “cultural lag” and many churches and individuals are having trouble seeing they have lost the battle for the hearts and minds of people who have followed this debate for so many years and see the historical treatment of LGBT persons has been wrong, immoral and not consistent with democratic principals, equality, and even religious principals and understanding.

    Science has also stepped into the debate to bring light to the nature versus nurture debate. It is doubtful they will find a specific gay gene but there is enough physiological evidence to overwhelmingly support a largely genetic cause. Where all this will lead is uncertain but we already have enough evidence to support this is not a matter of choice between sin and righteousness and that has choice has little, if anything, to do with understanding sexual orientation.

    Additionally, we have many theologians who are providing a new contextual understandings to the scriptural references used to deny LGBT persons equal rights. There is, across all denominations, much theology emerging to support a new view of LGBT persons.

    We know that faith is sometime eschatological (unfolding truths and understandings) What is now clear is that it is time for Christians to really search their souls, do their research. Who would have predicted that churches could spend so much time, effort and resourses to remove the rights and liberties of others. I thought the people of God should always be motivated by love and not motivated by hatred, fear, and stereotypical discrimination. We know that us Christians have made many mistakes such as supporting slavery, the second class treatment of women, Galileo and many other things. I think we are seeing a great eschatological movement of the Holy Spirit – maybe the Holy Spirit is moving by changing the minds and hearts of the faithful and that a time for change has arrived for the marginalized. On this topic it would appear that the laity are ahead of the curve on this issue like many other issues in the church. Change, as history shows, is seldom lead by leadership, especially when their authority or status quo is questioned. The laity see the blatant unloving, exclusive, intolerant attitudes of our leaders and see these actions as the antithesis of what we expect from Christian sectors.

    • Anton
      Anton says:

      Agree with Noble Cop. Moses listened to the voice in the Burning Bush to help free his own people from the slavery imposed by Pharaoh. God has been sending us prophets to finally liberate LGBT people from the clutches of the contemporary pharaohs who are trying to make us believe they are speaking in God’s name. When the Hebrews were fighting Amelek, Aaron and Hur upheld the arms of Moses in prayer to ensure the victory in battle. Let’s keep holding up the arms of our prophets who are helping free so many people imprisoned in closets over the centuries. God is liberating people called to freedom.

  7. Chuck Anziulewicz
    Chuck Anziulewicz says:

    The issue is over an done with. Conservative Christians can “resist” as much as they want to; it still won’t prevent a single Gay couple from marrying. And fortunately there is a growing number of Christian churches that are welcoming and marrying Gay couples. Stick with a church that DOESN’T, if that makes you feel suitably righteous.


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