This is the day that the wave of secular, social, moral and cultural change that has been building in our nation for thirty-plus years finally crested. This is the day when we reached a significant tipping point. Every conversation from this point will be different.
Why? U.S. District Chief Judge Vaughn Walker issued a decision overturning California’s Proposition 8, a constitutional amendment by which the citizens of California voted to ban same-sex marriage. His decision is a game-changer in our continuing national debate over the normalization of homosexuality, and the definitions of marriage and family. (You can read the decision here.) It also sets a new standard for judicial activism, whereby a single judge can somehow feel he is entitled to overturn the considered will of the populace expressed through a free ballot. He actually wrote “That the majority of California voters supported Proposition 8 is irrelevant”.
The legal battles over this issue are far from over; this decision will most likely be appealed to the Ninth Circuit and eventually to the U.S. Supreme Court. The discussion and opinion about the issues it addresses will provide fodder for radio talk shows, and the script for political campaigns in the next election cycle. For reactions and analysis from varied perspectives, look here, here, and here.
But the game-changing impact will come as much from the tone and basis of the decision as from the specific issue it addresses. Listen carefully to Judge Walker’s words. Yes, there is a fine line of legalese and the fact that much of the argument has to do with the state’s compelling interest. But consider the implications and project the larger impact on other issues and conversations. Here are the “public square” concepts that this decision addresses:
+ the nature of authority & truth: The argument of the decision is rooted in what Walker labels as “findings” of fact. The trumpeted headline in most reports was that this decision is rooted in scientific fact and indisputable evidence. Walker seemed swayed by the number of “experts” who gave testimony for the plaintiffs. Hear these “facts” that he drew from their testimony:
+“Children do not need to be raised by a male parent and a female parent to be well-adjusted, and having both a male and a female parent does not increase the likelihood that a child will be well-adjusted.”
+ “The gender of a child’s parent is not a factor in the child’s adjustment. The sexual orientation of an individual does not determine whether that individual can be a good parent.”
+“Same-sex couples are identical to opposite-sex couples in the characteristics relevant to the ability to form successful marital unions.”
+ “The evidence shows conclusively that moral and religious views form the only basis for a belief that same-sex couples are different from opposite-sex couples… These interests do not provide a rational basis supporting Proposition 8”
All of these assertions came from “expert” testimony or the judges interpretation of that testimony. This is the rise of the scientific as authority. Any study presented by an “expert” scientist, historian, sociologist or researcher bears indisputable authority and is the only reasonable and acceptable gauge of truth.
On the other hand, arguments made from the self-evident reality of human biology, or on the basis of the long-accepted morality of civilizations and the tradtions of marriage, or especially those rooted in Judaeo- Christian tradition & teachings, are not reasonable. (The primary argument of the defense was that opposite –sex couples can procreate and the state’s best interest is in maintaining stable & growing families. I hope it was not as weak an argument as the summary in the decision makes it sound.) Judge Walker wrote: “Proposition 8 fails to advance any rational basis in singling out gay men and lesbians for denial of a marriage license. Indeed, the evidence shows Proposition 8 does nothing more than enshrine in the California Constitution the notion that opposite-sex couples are superior to same-sex couples….they failed to build a credible factual record to support their claim..testimony was unreliable.” Don’t miss that: convictions based on deeply held morality are not, in the court’s view, “rational” nor credible facts. What is the opposite of rational? Irrational or to put it more honestly…crazy. The absence of fact leaves you with fantasy, lies, or private opinion with no broad impact.
By the evidence he accepted and that which he rejected, the Judge formed the basis for the truth at the core of his decision. He attempts to create a value-free zone by which public policy is set by supposedly impartial, unemotional “facts”…all the while ignoring the reality that by naming some facts as indispensable and others as irrational, he is raising his own values as the defining standard for laws.
+ the place (or not) of religious / Biblical values in public policy and discussion. This is related to the first and is a next step to a wider observation.
“Religious beliefs that gay and lesbian relationships are sinful or inferior to heterosexual relationships harm gays and lesbians.”
Note this does not address the legal issue; it explicitly attacks the beliefs of American citizens. It declares the beliefs themselves to be harmful and therefore out of bounds. (First Amendment, anyone?) A major part of the case presented to the judge asserted that evangelical Christians, in particular and as a class, hold beliefs and take actions that are bigoted and promote the abuse of gay persons.
This is both an elevation of secularism as national religion and, more simply, a pretext for making this into a civil rights issue. Again, “Sexual orientation discrimination is thus a phenomenon distinct from, but related to, sex discrimination….The court determines that plaintiff’s equal protection claim is based on sexual orientation, but this claim is equivalent to a claim of discrimination based on sex.” If a basis of discrimination is found, there is every possibility that we will move to identify words (in sermons, books or conversations) that affirm the Bible’s clear teaching about gender as “hate speech”. If beliefs can be dismissed as harmful to a group, federal regulation of hiring, involvement and more is not far behind.
“The tradition of restricting marriage to opposite-sex couples does not further any state interest. Rather, the evidence shows that Proposition 8 harms the state’s interest in equality, because it mandates that men and women be treated differently based only on antiquated and discredited notions of gender.”
Thus, Biblical teaching and morality is now, in the view of our courts, “antiquated and discredited”. By whom? According to what standards? Where is the evidence for this “fact”, Judge Walker? This enables the society to place Biblical values in the same category as Red Scare McCarthyism, black & white televisions, or Area 51 UFO conspiracy theorists. In other words, it no longer has a legitimate place in our culture; it is merely a relic of a bygone time. (Again, the Judge’s bias and disdain for Biblical teaching is showing.)
+ the nature of gender identification and marriage
“Same-sex couples are identical to opposite-sex couples in the characteristics relevant to the ability to form successful marital unions.”
Then, in one astonishing sentence, Walker unequivocally states: “Gender no longer forms an essential part of marriage; marriage under law is a union of equals.” In that one moment, marriage was utterly redefined for our society, casting aside not only Biblical teaching, but the accepted practice among multiplied cultures and ethnicities across millennia of human history. Further, “….the exclusion (of gays from marriage) exists as an artifact of a time when genders were seen as having distinct roles in society and in marriage. That time has passed.” Gender distinctive are also summarily removed. Astonishing.
This is a profound ruling—and one that will be the center point of our engagement with our culture for the coming years. Yes, it presents evangelicals who follow Biblical teaching as irrational, hopelessly out-of-touch with contemporary world, and bigoted. That view of Christians is gaining strength in our culture.
But it is precisely here where we will have to stay focused on primacy of God’s glory, faithful to the gospel of Jesus, and radically loving to all people. This is the world in which we are called to live out our mission. Yes, there will be court cases and even votes to come for which we will mobilize. But the real challenge will come as Jesus’ people have conversations and encounters with people in our community who identify themselves as gay, or who agree with the pursuit of a more secular society, free of Christian morality. To speak the truth in love to them, show them Jesus’ love, and stay true to Jesus without flinching will be our life calling.
The game has changed.