The Supreme Court of the United States (SCOTUS) and marriage have been in the news quite a bit lately. SCOTUS’s rulings on Proposition 8 (Prop 8) and the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) are uniquely pertinent decisions for our time. Regardless of what side of the issue you’re on, everybody is emotional about it. Some folks are euphoric on their way to exchange vows; others are buying property in Costa Rica to avoid God’s apocalyptic asteroid of judgment that they’re convinced is aimed at Capitol Hill. In the midst of this spectrum of reactions, I would like to offer another, perhaps, calmer reflection. In this essay, I would like to clarify the development and decision of the Prop 8 case, and then suggest four implications, three of which are particularly for the Christian reader. In the future, I’d like to take up the DOMA decision in the same manner.
In case you’ve not been watching the news lately, SCOTUS in Hollingsworth v. Perry recently heard arguments regarding Proposition 8 (Prop 8), the 2008 amendment to the California state constitution, later affirmed by the California Supreme Court in 2009, that restricted California’s official definition of “marriage” to the union of one woman to one man. The US Supreme Court justices did not strike down or defend Proposition 8. They, instead, dismissed the case due to the defendant’s lack of “standing,” a legal term which I’ll attempt to explain below.
To get a full sense of what actually happened in the Prop 8 hearing, some background is appropriate. A little history on the subject, like a spoonful of sugar, will go a long way to get to the “medicine” of my points here. So if you’ll bear with me in my recounting of some of the journey of Prop 8, I’ll try to caramelize it as much as possible.
Californians voted by majority (~52%) in 2008 to pass a state amendment to its constitution that would limit the definition of marriage to one woman to one man. Shortly thereafter in 2010, two same-sex couples filed a federal lawsuit in District Court against California’s elected officials who were responsible for enforcing the law. Neither the governor nor the attorney general would defend Prop 8 before the court, however, so it was left to California citizens or “petitioners,” led by a group called Project Marriage, to defend the amendment in trial. The District Court concluded that Prop 8 was unconstitutional and awarded the case to the plaintiffs, but the petitioners quickly appealed to the Ninth Circuit Court. The Ninth Circuit, before hearing the case, raised a question of “standing” to California’s Supreme Court. Essentially, the question the Ninth Circuit wanted the California Supreme Court to answer was, “Do ‘petitioners’ actually have the right to defend this case in court if the public officials who are responsible for enforcing the law refuse to do so?” The California Supreme Court said that they did have sufficient “standing,” but the Ninth Circuit went on to uphold the ruling of the District Court (2-1) affirming Prop 8 to be unconstitutional in California. Prop 8 supporters then appealed to SCOTUS.
SCOTUS focused on and reconsidered the question of Prop 8 defenders’ legal “standing,” the question raised earlier by the District Court to the California Supreme Court. While the California Supreme Court said the “petitioners” did have standing, SCOTUS disagreed. In effect, SCOTUS refused to hear arguments on Prop 8 because it ruled (5-4) that the petitioners could not demonstrate particularized injury. They did not have “standing,” according to SCOTUS, because they were not forced to suffer sustained grievance. As Chief Justice Roberts stated, they “had not been ordered to do or refrain from doing anything. Their only interest was to vindicate the constitutional validity of a generally applicable California law.” Citing several court precedents, the details of which I did not pursue, SCOTUS argued (again, 5-4) that it has “repeatedly held” that petitioners, in these instances, do not have sufficient standing to represent themselves in court.
SCOTUS, therefore, did not in Hollingsworth v. Perry redefine marriage in California or anywhere else to include homosexual unions. California’s Supreme Court had already done that, and same-sex marriages simply resumed therein. Furthermore, I am unconvinced that, with regard to Prop 8, SCOTUS acted to satisfy a politically liberal-ized agenda, much to the disagreement of some respectable conservative punditry. After all, Roberts and Scalia, nominated by conservative presidents, voted with the majority; Kennedy and Sotomayor, typically more progressive votes, voted against. So the 5-4 split in this case was not along clear socially conservative or liberal dividing lines. Effectively, this decision allowed the District Court’s ruling that Prop 8 was unconstitutional to stand without challenge, thus defeating the amendment.
This ruling does, however, provide every state with a unique learning opportunity, and here lies the first implication. Remember, Prop 8 never got a national hearing primarily because elected officials refused to defend it. This should be a lesson for the voting citizenry. While SCOTUS, on the basis of my very limited legal understanding, appeared to function as it should in this case—with attention to the law and without attention to political interests—it also sharpened the focus of each state’s citizens to a question for its elected officials: Will you defend the cause and constitution of those you represent? For all my fellow citizens, this demonstrates yet again, that in our representative democracy, votes for each office of government are of the utmost relevance.
That implication is a citizen’s observation. It has nothing to do, really, with Christianity. Just a plain citizen’s remarks. But the next three are from a Christian perspective. That said, here we go.
Secondly, the event of the trial and its context underscore what is becoming all too obvious, namely, that the Christian worldview (and when I say “Christian” I mean to represent orthodox, evangelical Christianity) that helped shape and inform the moral nature of this country is increasingly disregarded as an accurate guide to and reflection of true virtue. What happened in California highlights that Christians everywhere, more than ever before, should strive to educate themselves and make the case publically for the legitimacy of the one woman/one man definition of marriage—its social good and its gospel centeredness. I might add a gentle encouragement here: that we should do less head-wagging, shaming, yelling, and bemoaning those with whom we disagree, and rather engage those with whom we disagree in compassionate, intelligent, and civil discourse. Granted, that kind of conversation isn’t good fodder for Talk Radio, but it’s the only measure of persuasion in our polarized state of affairs that actually accomplishes its intended goal. In other words, we want to convince people if they disagree with us—not demean and demonize them.
Thirdly, those who portend angrily for judgment on a “God-forsaken” America do a disservice to the cause of evangelism and indicate a depressing lack of trust in the power of God’s gospel. Of course, it’s discouraging and times “they are a-changing.” But it’s not a time for vitriol and hate-mongering. Shouldn’t Christians weep over sin, instead of curse the land where it happens? Shouldn’t Christians pray for peace and work for the redemption of all people, rather than despise the nation and people that need it? Moreover, we would do well not to forget that the global expanse and success of Christianity began in a pervasively pagan Roman Empire. Consider also Jonah’s Ninevah. Why despair as though God’s gospel has lost in our nation when some of its most dynamic, earth-shaking influences were during a far worse moral climate in a far worsened paganized world?
Fourthly, the defeat of Prop 8 should remind Christians that our true and ultimate hope is not tethered to any laws, courts, Republican or Democratic governments, or countries on this earth. As much as we deeply love this country, we remain “sojourners” (1 Peter 1:1) who look to a future reign of our King and his government (Isaiah 9:6). While we may wish for a different verdict, we should remind ourselves that the voice of the Church does not harmonize with the voice of the State. It is our duty to speak in love and in truth to each other, to all humanity, and to all governments. Sometimes that Christian witness will mean a special dinner at the Whitehouse; other times, it might mean a special seat in the jail house. As true and first citizens of a heavenly kingdom, we ought to be as comfortable as Joseph, the confidant and friend of the Pharaoh; or Elijah, the exiled, persecuted, and scorned wilderness prophet. We speak truth seasoned in love, whether it is “in season,” or “out of season,” as our whole allegiance is due another Lord.