Rev. Welton Gaddy, a Baptist minister, is pastor at Northminster Church in Monroe, Louisiana. He also serves as the president of the Interfaith Alliance in Washington, D.C. This past week, according to a story carried by Associated Baptist Press, Gaddy issued a position paper detailing his support of civil unions for homosexuals.
His argument is rooted in a traditional Baptist understanding of the separation of church and state. Blogging in the Washington Post Gaddy wrote, “If government officials and religious leaders distinguished the differences between legal marriage and religious marriage, they could greatly reduce the amount of conflict in public discussions on same-gender marriage.”
Gaddy argues that the only marriages that are legal in the United States are those based on a marriage license issued by the state. Religious ceremonies conducted in churches or other houses of worship are irrelevant in terms of legality.
“To confuse the civil institution of marriage with a religious institution to be protected by the government is to seriously misunderstand marriage and its relationship to government in the United States,” Gaddy wrote in a longer paper on the subject. “Civil law determines the formation and dissolution of a marriage as well as the duties, responsibilities, rights and benefits of married people; rights related to property, insurance, inheritance, bankruptcy, social security and more; duties related to mutual support, payment of taxes and more; and a variety of privileges.”
Gaddy reminds us that religious leaders recognize the role that government plays in regard to marriage when they comply with state requirements. Marriage ceremonies conducted in houses of worship are only valid when the minister signs the marriage license. Religious leaders also recognize that a marriage cannot be officially dissolved without the legal sanction of the government.
Gaddy argues that introducing words like “sanctity” and “sacred” into the debate about marriage is inappropriate. The government has no role in determining what is or is not sacred.
For these reasons, Gaddy believes that homosexuals should have the same right to marry as anyone else. He further believes that the same recognition and respect now given to heterosexual marriage should be extended to marriages of people of the same gender. This would include marriages in one state being recognized in other states.
Gaddy acknowledges that what he is proposing will be hard for opponents of gay marriage to accept. That’s why he also advocates for provisions that would protect religious leaders from being forced to act against conviction or conscience.
Gaddy told the Associated Baptist Press that he believes movement toward same-gender marriage might create an opportunity for Americans to seriously reconsider the place of marriage in government and religion. For his part, he would be glad for government to get out of the marriage business altogether.
Gaddy proposes having states issue licenses for civil unions for any couple seeking a legal relationship. Marriages, however, would only take places in houses of worship. He acknowledges that there is a danger in his proposal that civil unions could eventually be viewed by some as second class relationships.
Gaddy said he was making his proposal in an effort to provoke positive discussion around the issue. He is willing for the Interfaith Alliance to help facilitate such a discussion.
James L. Evans is pastor of Auburn First Baptist Church in Auburn, Alabama. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.