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By K. Hollyn Hollman, BJC General Counsel

Hollman HeadshotClick here for a 2-page handout about the decision (PDF link).

Early in the U.S. Supreme Court decision finding a constitutional right to marriage that includes same-sex partners, Justice Kennedy describes the “transcendent importance of marriage.” He makes a point that is crucial to discussions about religious liberty and marriage, stating: “Marriage is sacred to those who live by their religions and offers unique fulfillment to those who find meaning in the secular realm.” With that simple and undeniably true statement, we are reminded of an important distinction between two meanings of “marriage.” Marriage is a religious act that occurs in the context of a religious community consistent with religious texts, traditions and understandings. Marriage is also a civil institution that affords certain legal privileges and protections. The statement acknowledges an important distinction that has often been lost in the heated debates about marriage equality and the intersection of religious liberty.

Obergefell v. Hodges is a landmark civil rights case. It is not a First Amendment religious liberty case. Though the decision will have ramifications for religious liberty, some of which the majority notes briefly and the dissents stress more forcefully, the case is about civil marriage.

The decision states that the history of marriage “is one of both continuity and change. That institution – even as confined to opposite-sex relations – has evolved over time.” The Court found that the history and evolution of marriage, as well as the changing understanding of the rights of gays and lesbians, were significant to finding that the Fourteenth Amendment protections include same-sex marriage. The Court’s decision is based on marriage being a fundamental right demonstrated through principles about individual autonomy, the singular importance of the marriage union, protection of children and families, and the preservation of social order. The Court found that exclusion of same-sex couples from marriage could not be supported in light of these principles. To put it directly: “The limitation of marriage to opposite-sex couples may long have seemed natural and just, but its inconsistency with the central meaning of the fundamental right to marry is now manifest.”

In anticipation of the Court’s decision, conversations about religious liberty conflicts have abounded. Some centered on legitimate concerns; others exaggerated unfounded fears. The conversations will continue and the real legal conflicts will not be worked out overnight. It is important, however, to make clear that the Court’s decision does not remove the separation of church and state. Churches will continue to make their own decisions about what kind of marriage ceremonies they conduct. Ministers will not be forced to perform same-sex weddings. Harder questions, particularly about religiously affiliated institutions and individual religious objectors, will depend on new fact scenarios and the interplay of a variety of laws.

While religious liberty rights were not the central subject of the case, the Obergefell majority respectfully acknowledged that some deeply held and long-standing religious beliefs oppose same-sex marriage. The Court stated: “Many who deem same-sex marriage to be wrong reach that conclusion based on decent and honorable religious or philosophical premises and neither they nor their beliefs are disparaged here.” This kind of respectful treatment of dissenting views is important in continuing to protect religious liberty without harming the rights the Court affirmed today.

Click here to listen to Holly Hollman discuss the decision in a podcast.

Click here to read other columns on marriage and religious liberty from the Baptist Joint Committee.