The words above the Supreme Court read, “Equal Justice Under the Law.” This week, two Supreme Court outcomes dramatically affected the reality of those words.
On Tuesday, in a 5-4 decision, a key component of the historic Voting Rights Act of 1965 was struck down, jeopardizing equal justice under the law especially for black, Hispanic, and low-income people whose voting rights have historically been assaulted and have continued to be suppressed as recently as the 2012 election. In fact, Section 4 of the Voting Rights Act — which required parts of the country that have been especially egregious in racially motivated voter suppression to get federal approval of any changes in their voting laws — was specifically used in the 2012 election to prevent new voter suppression. That provision has now been struck down, and efforts to increase barriers to voting are already underway in several states, especially in the South, that would suppress the future votes of Americans of color, especially those with lower incomes.
Equal justice under the law lost on Tuesday, June 25. The Supreme Court’s decision was morally shameful.
On the wrong side of the argument were Justices Thomas, Scalia, Alito, Kennedy, and Chief Justice Roberts, with Roberts writing the majority opinion — appropriate, given his many years fighting against the Voting Rights Act. The decision revealed how politically partisan this bench has unfortunately become. In the past, Republicans have supported voting rights, and a bipartisan Congress has affirmed the Voting Rights Act several times. But the conservative justices have aligned themselves with the extreme right-wing politics that have taken over today’s Republican Party — one that has deliberately encouraged and practiced voter suppression against minorities, low-income people, the young, and the elderly.
I was at a conference with NAACP President Benjamin Jealous when the decision came down. “Devastating” was Ben’s first word when we spoke about what had just happened. “Breathtaking,” said another long-time civil rights advocate. The faith community was essential in mobilizing for the Civil Rights Law in 1964 and the Voting Rights Act in 1965. For my generation, this was the central moral battle of our time.
America has made great progress on racial justice because of tireless and courageous efforts of many. But the illusory idea of a “post-racial” America is exposed as a lie by this nation’s criminal justice system, the many recent attempts at racially based voter suppression, and now in this decision by the United States Supreme Court. It is now time for communities of faith across the country to mobilize again on behalf of equal justice under the law because the Supreme Court cannot be depended upon to enforce the words written on its entrance. The church cannot ignore this issue; pastors must preach the power of the gospel.
Contrast Tuesday’s decision with the final ones we saw handed down this week. On Wednesday, the Supreme Court struck down the federal Defense of Marriage Act as unconstitutional and discriminatory against same-sex couples. They also ruled that the sponsors of California's controversial Proposition 8 did not have legal standing, seemingly clearing the way for same-sex marriage in California.
The religious community is clearly divided on the issues surrounding marriage equality and what the Bible says about homosexuality. But I, along with a growing number of people in the faith community, believe that equal protection under the law is essential for our gay and lesbian friends and family members. While some Christians are conflicted about the theological issues involved, or even are unable to support homosexuality on a religious basis, they also don’t want churches to be the ones standing in the way of civil rights.
This year, reporters have asked me if I supported marriage equality. The answer is yes. But I believe it is important to start by saying how much I strongly support marriage —we have to begin there. Through this controversial debate, I deeply hope that our country can come together around a new conversation — about how we can all recommit ourselves to marriage and all that comes with it — monogamy, fidelity, and, for many of us, parenting. We are losing marriage in this society. While there are many single parents who do a wonderful job taking on the challenge, I believe that if we lose a critical mass of healthy marriages and two-parent families, we are in very serious trouble.
But the prospect and increasing reality of same-sex marriage is hardly to blame for the breakdown of marriage in our society. The nation’s soaring divorce rate is a matter of deep concern — and the divorce rate among conservative Christians is comparable to that of non-Christians. A variety of other factors contribute to a society moving away from marriage: a culture that glorifies recreational instead of covenantal sexuality; a non-commitment culture; a society that especially turns women and girls into commodities; a justice system that leads to mass incarceration of young men of color and breaks apart families; an immigration system that doesn’t protect family unity; and an economic system with too many jobs that don’t pay a living family wage, just to name a few.
We need to stop blaming same-sex couples for the breakdown of the family. Heterosexual dysfunction, moral selfishness, sexual promiscuity, and economic injustices that pressure too many families’ lives are to blame. It remains an irony that many of those who speak out so strongly for marriage and family values are also so strongly against allowing gay and lesbian couples to get married and have a family. I wish I heard those same people speak as often or as strongly about Christian men who cheat or abuse their wives, or about too easy and convenient divorces, or about parents who don’t make their children their first priority.
Gay and lesbian people are children of God, fellow human beings, and American citizens. I have long believed that our LGBT brothers and sisters should have equal rights and protections under the law. The public policy conversation on what this means has clearly evolved. Years ago, civil unions seemed like a common sense, common ground solution, but I am now convinced that civil marriage equality is the best way to ensure that the principle of equal protection under the law is applied.
Many young people with whom I work and admire have strong feelings on this issue, and I support their leadership on this. Young Christians are reaching political conclusions, others develop theological conclusions, and many others are still in process. It is also clear that Christians who disagree on the biblical or theological issues can still agree to civic equality for same-sex committed couples. It will be vitally important that faith communities and local congregations have absolute religious freedom and liberty to work out their commitments on these issues with their own biblical interpretations and theological discussions — on both sides of this question. We should uphold the biblical connection between sexual expression and covenantal love wherever possible. And we have to ask whether faith communities want to be known for blocking that civil right and commitment.
When two people are waiting in line to pledge lifelong faithful love to one another, I don't think we should be standing in their way.
Here are two deep issues that Christians must deal with. First, one of the biggest reasons that young people are leaving their churches — ditching their religious labels, or not being drawn to churches in the first place — is how they perceive the church’s negative and even hateful attitudes toward LGBT people. Second, we must ask if Christians treat LGBT people the way Jesus would have. The honest answer to that question is a painful no, and that has to change. The love of Christ must motivate us on this issue, and, I believe, renewing our commitment to marriage could be the common ground for the common good that unites all sides on this issue. I am praying for that.
To my Christian brothers and sisters who might not agree with the approach I have taken: I encourage you to take the time to really hear the concerns and hearts of a younger generation. I do believe that sincere Christians who take the Bible seriously can disagree on this issue, that biblical Christians can reach different interpretations of how the scriptures apply to committed same-sex couples. We previewed an important book on that subject in the April issue of Sojourners, Bible, Gender, Sexuality, by James Brownson, who suggests the biblical issues are more complicated than many have thought. I believe that we should always be open to what God is speaking to a new generation of Christians as they seek to be faithful to the call of Christ in their lives.
Right now, it is vital that we find common ground with those with whom we might not be in complete agreement, to make practical progress on the things we know are important and good for all — like a re-covenanting to marriage.
So many people of faith are grateful for the Supreme Court decision on Wednesday that makes equal justice under the law more real for gay and lesbian couples. At the same time we abhor the decision made the day before that moves us backward in equal protection under the law for people of color and lower-income citizens. In each 5-4 decision, the choice of Justice Anthony Kennedy was the decisive: one against equal justice on Tuesday and for it on Wednesday.
But for Christians, equal justice — equal protection under the law for all our brothers and sisters — should be one of our primary public commitments.