When I was a child in rural Mississippi, I would often ride in my father’s pick-up with him as we surveyed the soybean crop on our family farm. On these long, bumpy drives, talk would inevitably lead to my father’s favorite topic: constitutional law. He was a lawyer-turned-farmer who believed that the judicial branch can — and often does — represent the very best protection for civil rights in our society. Having grown up in Mississippi in an era when black Americans were systematically denied civil rights, he had seen firsthand the important role the courts could play in protecting minority groups.
One case that always came up in our talks was Brown v. Board of Education. According to my father, what made this decision so important was that it placed equal rights above popular opinion. This was a clear example of the judicial branch being more progressive than the general public. Yet looking back, almost all Americans now agree that the Brown decision was the morally correct one. By leaning to the “left” of public opinion, the court was on the “right” side of history.
My late father would have been proud, therefore, to read Judge Vaughn Walker’s recent decision in Perry v. Schwarzenegger that struck down California’s Proposition 8. Just as my father’s generation fought over civil rights for black Americans, my generation is caught up in a battle over the right of same-sex couples to marry.
In many ways, Perry v. Schwarzenegger is remarkably similar to Brown v. Board Ed. In both cases, the question is whether separate institutions can be considered equal. Are civil unions for same-sex couples the fair equivalent of heterosexual marriage? Judge Walker’s decision demonstrates persuasively that they are not. His decision also identifies the bigotry at the heart of Prop 8: “The evidence shows conclusively that Proposition 8 enacts, without reason, a private moral view that same-sex couples are inferior to opposite-sex couples.”
In deciding this way, Judge Walker has positioned himself on the “left” side of the majority of California voters who enacted Prop 8 into law. However, it is also the “right” decision. I have little doubt that, 50 years from now, Americans will view Proposition 8 the same way that we now view racial segregation: as an embarrassing stain on our free society.
Sadly, Judge Walker is also on the left side of the Church. In our contentious fight over the rights of gay men and lesbians to marry and to become ordained, we have moved away from the radical inclusion that was so beautifully portrayed by the Apostle Paul: that in the Body of Christ, “there is neither Jew nor Greek, free nor slave, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Gal 3).
In Paul’s time, these were dangerous words. They violated social codes that separated people into distinct hierarchies. Paul’s words were grounded in something greater: the transformative reality of Jesus’ love, which made unlikely relationships possible. How did that happen? By allowing individuals to see one another as God already sees them: as equal. This radical love is why Christians can be among the most accepting and loving people in the world.
Paul’s words are still dangerous affronts to bigotry. Only now, the Church is ignoring them. Every time a young candidate is rejected from the ordination process because of his or her sexual orientation, the Church is siding not only with the wrong side of history, but also with the wrong side of its own tradition. (This is not to mention the numbers of gay men and lesbians who never even consider ordination because of our restrictive policies.) Ironically, we may have to look to the American courts to teach us about human rights, instead of looking into our own Bible, which speaks of human equality more powerfully than any secular court.
In a 2003 speech defending the rights of gay men and women, the late Coretta Scott King invoked her husband’s famous statement, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” When Martin Luther King, Jr. wrote those words, he was sitting in a Birmingham jail, fighting a two-pronged battle. On the one hand, he was fighting to end Jim Crow segregation laws. King’s second task, however, was even greater: to convince the majority of Americans that segregation was evil and had to be urgently opposed on moral grounds. King’s fiercest criticism was addressed to white religious leaders, who knew segregation was wrong and yet lacked the courage to act quickly and decisively to end it.
This is now the task of religious progressives. We still don’t know whether Judge Walker’s decision will affect only California, or will become national precedent. But whatever the courts decide, religious progressives will face a greater challenge: to convince our sisters and brothers in the Church that gay rights are moral rights and deserve our urgent support. This second struggle is more difficult, but its fruits are greater and more lasting. Its goal is no less than Christian love, for all.