Support for equal marriage rights for gay and lesbian couples in the United States is at an all-time high. The court of public opinion has weighed in, leaving only a necessary change in federal law to legitimize the debate the country has had for at least a decade.
While many might think it is religious communities as a whole who oppose gay marriage in the United States, that demographic is changing.
Many religious organizations have shifted to support the idea of equal marriage rights, including the United Church of Christ, the leaders of Conservative and Reform Judaism, and the Episcopal Church. In fact, upon a brief review of the legal history of the United States, one might find that religious doctrine often shifts to accommodate changes in societal attitudes and the laws of that time.
What is interesting about this fluid element is that it effectively means that legal bodies in the United States can hold sway over religious institutions. On Tuesday, the Supreme Court didn’t just hear arguments for and against a change to gay marriage laws; it heard arguments on whether or not the court should rule to influence religious doctrine nationwide.
Not an easy statement to swallow. However, looking back at the history of the U.S., there are no clearer examples of this than slavery and segregation. This will hardly be the first time that the court system has dictated the direction of the country’s religious leanings.Religious doctrine often shifts to accommodate changes in societal attitudes and the laws of that time.
Prior to the Civil War, some Mormons and Protestants believed that the Bible supported African slavery. Once slavery was finally ended, the same scriptures were used to justify the segregation of African-Americans in the South. Some people even went so far as to use this as the justification for banning interracial marriages.
Now there are some who believe that it is an unfair comparison to connect the struggles African-Americans went through to gain equal rights to those of the LGBT community. But legally speaking the comparison is more than apt.
Following the change in public sentiment and rulings by the Supreme Court, these religious institutions abandoned their compunctions over racial integration. While the Mormon church only formally dropped racial segregation in the 1970s, it’s clear the church was influenced partly by the public and largely by a change in laws.
And yet somehow this fluidity does not contradict the purportedly infallible nature of such holy books, raising the question: is the Supreme Court also a partially religious structure? It most certainly exists at the intersection of religion and the law, but it would be difficult to argue that any other governmental force in the United States has held more influence over the policies and beliefs of religious bodies.
What should be taken away from this interaction first is that religion is hardly set in stone; it changes to adapt to the times in which it lives. Second, it can be argued that the common sensibilities of the day are at least in part dictated by the actions of legal bodies, notably the Supreme Court.
While this could be interpreted as an activist court overstepping its own power and limiting religious freedom, history suggests that this is business as usual for the Supreme Court. Administers of justice, highest court in the land… religious trendsetter? You decide.