When the U.S. Supreme Court announced last November it would hear oral arguments in Obergefell v. Hodges, a same-sex marriage case scheduled to come before the Court next week, both opponents and supporters of marriage equality fired up their advocacy machines for what many legal analysts suspect will be a landmark ruling on LGBT rights. Predictably, a familiar flock of theologically conservative faith groups submitted amicus briefs — legal documents sent to the Supreme Court that offer additional information for an upcoming case — opposing the freedom to marry. The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, longtime adversary of marriage equality, filed a brief rehashing old condemnations of same-sex relationships, as did a group claiming to represent “Major Religious Organizations,” which included the National Association of Evangelicals, the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, and the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, the largest branch of Mormonism.
Meanwhile, a brief from the Family Research Council (FRC), a right-wing advocacy organization that often couches legal arguments in religious language, echoed a trope common among Christian conservatives: America is a Christian — or at least religious — nation, and since religion is supposedly inherently opposed to LGBT couples, Supreme Court justices should be too.
“Believing that God is the author of life, liberty and the family, FRC promotes the Judeo-Christian world view as the basis for a just, free and stable society,” the brief read. “Consistent with its mission statement, FRC is committed to strengthening traditional [meaning opposite sex] families.”
No one view speaks for “religion.”
But even as this wave of anti-LGBT briefs makes its way to the desks of Supreme Court clerks, a number of religious groups are also submitting or signing on to briefs in support of same-sex marriage. The briefs, once cobbled together by a few progressive faith traditions, now brandish the names of thousands of historic Christian leaders and institutions, each voicing positions that challenge old religious views of homosexuality and highlight just how far America’s theological goal posts have shifted on the topic of same-sex marriage.
The largest of these was submitted earlier this year by the President of the House of Deputies of the Episcopal Church. Originally organized through the work of several Episcopal bishops, it was co-signed by a long list of groups from across the “Judeo-Christian” religious spectrum, such as the United Church of Christ, the Union for Reform Judaism, the Unitarian Universalist Association, and Muslims for Progressive Values, as well as pro-LGBT groups operating within Quakerism, Methodism, Presbyterianism, and Lutheranism. Like many left-leaning progressives, the brief argues the Court is primarily tasked with discerning the civil — not religious — definition of marriage, but highlighted the swelling number of Americans whose faith calls them to embrace LGBT rights.
“Whether it be the ordination of lesbian and gay clergy, the express welcome to lesbian and gay congregants and their families, or the affirmation that lesbian and gay individuals possess the same inherent dignity as any other person, the American religious landscape includes same-sex couples and their families and affirms their role in both faith communities and civil society at large,” the brief read. “No one view speaks for ‘religion’ — even if, contrary to the Establishment Clause, it were appropriate to give weight to religious views in the application of the Constitution’s secular promise of equal protection.”
There is, of course, precedent for faith groups endorsing marriage equality with amicus briefs. A similar list of progressive religious groups, also led by Episcopal bishops, crafted a brief affirming same-sex marriage ahead of the 2013 U.S. Supreme Court case on California’s Proposition 8, which banned LGBT people from legally marrying in the state from 2008 to 2013. Briefs favoring LGBT couples were also filed in 2013 by the American Jewish Committee and the California Council of Churches.
But if Proposition 8 opened up a trickle of faith-based support for LGBT rights, Obergefell v. Hodges unleashed a veritable flood. The list of signatories in the 2013 brief from Episcopal bishops, for example, totaled a mere 6 pages. By contrast, the bishops’ brief in advance of the 2015 case includes several new organizations and the individual names of more than 1,900 faith leaders, additions that stretch the list of spiritual endorsers to a whopping 117 pages.
Religious voices are not univocal on the subject of homosexuality and marriage equality.
This surge in pro-LGBT faith advocates is the culmination of a series of sustained advocacy movements within American religious communities. Many of these signers would have faced repercussions for publicly embracing LGBT people in 2013, for example, but new theological understandings of sexual identity have made it easier for pastors, priests, rabbis, and faith leaders to champion the right to marry. Despite years of battles between religious Americans and LGBT advocacy groups, a 2014 poll from Pew Research found that six-in-ten Catholics and white mainline Protestants now back same-sex marriage, and support continues to grow among black Protestants. In addition, a 2011 survey from the Public Religion Research Institute found that 69 percent of non-Christian but religiously affiliated Americans favored allowing gay and lesbian couples to marry. These opinions are also reflected in a slew of changes within denominations: several evangelicals have begun speaking out against their community’s hostility to homosexuality, and the Presbyterian Church (USA) followed the lead of several other mainline Protestant groups when it voted to embrace same-sex marriage in March.
The spiritual shakeup over homosexuality paved the way for a throng of new faith-rooted LGBT advocacy organizations such as the Campaign for Southern Equality, which submitted its own brief to the Court addressing Obergefell v. Hodges. While outlining an exhaustive legal argument for supporting same-sex couples that framed LGBT people as an oppressed group, the authors of the document dismissed the claim that religion and LGBT equality are inherently opposed, all while stressing — like the bishops’ brief — that governments shouldn’t take religious positions in the first place.
“To be clear, Campaign for Southern Equality, which is led by an ordained minister, rejects the political assumption that ‘religious freedom’ is synonymous with a theology that condemns gay people,” the brief read. “Religious voices are not univocal on the subject of homosexuality and marriage equality. Growing numbers of faith traditions affirm marriages between same-sex couples, ordain openly gay clergy, and affirm homosexuality as a natural expression of human sexuality … It is precisely for this reason that state and local governments should not take a theological position on the issue of marriage equality.”
But while pro-LGBT religious Americans are well represented in the litany of amicus briefs concerning the case (the California Council of Churches once again submitted a document favoring marriage equality), right-leaning people of faith have also shown up in force. In addition to the staples of the Religious Right, relative newcomers such as Catholicvote.org Education Fund, Mike Huckabee Policy Solutions, and the Family Research Institute made religiously-rooted arguments against the freedom to marry, and many conservative organizations wove narrow biblical interpretations into their legal claims.
Still, even some critics of same-sex marriage implicitly acknowledge the success of secular LGBT advocates and gay-affirming faith groups in their briefs. One peculiar submission from the General Conference of Seventh-Day Adventists (SDA), for instance, refuses to take sides in the case even though the Christian tradition that does not support same-sex marriage. Instead, the SDA’s brief takes a cue from recent debates over “religious liberty” bills in Indiana and Arkansas, arguing that if the Court rules in favor of same-sex marriage, it should also include robust exemptions for religious organizations that harbor negative views of homosexuality.
“The Court should rule in a way that acknowledges the importance of statuary exemptions for religious organizations and conscientious objectors,” the brief concludes.
The impact of these briefs is hard to quantify, as the Supreme Court purportedly makes decisions based on legal precedent rather than theological conviction. But this diverse range of briefs, representing a broad spectrum of religious Americans, offers an unusual glimpse at the future of domestic policy debates over equality: Whereas LGBT people once saw religion as a sworn enemy, a decades-long faithful conversation about homosexuality has carved out a far more spiritually welcoming place for same-sex couples.