Same-Sex Marriage: Equal Rights, Religion, and Bigotry

samesexsloganwritten by Aaron Brake

When it comes to controversial moral debates like same-sex marriage, trite sayings such as this one on the right are echoed quite often in a culture where the make-up man has become more important than the speech writer. It’s short, it’s rhetorically powerful, and using only eighteen words, it gets the intended job done.

But often the truth of the matter takes a bit longer to unpack than can be offered in a thirty-second sound bite. An assertion can be uttered in seconds, while offering a reasoned argument requires clear thinking, patience, and energy, virtues and luxuries many people either can’t afford or simply don’t want to make time for.

The issue of same-sex marriage is a hot topic that is not going away anytime soon. It is important to be persistent in clarifying the issues, especially in the face of saucy slogans such as this.

So what’s wrong with this oft-repeated cliché?

Problem #1: It Frames the Same-Sex Marriage Debate as an Equal Rights Issue

“Denying equal rights…”

Indeed, we are a culture obsessed with equal rights and fair treatment. This is not to say that equal rights and fair treatment are not good and important things, they certainly are. The question is whether or not an appeal to equal rights and fair treatment is relevant to the issue at hand.

Some time ago I posted a blog titled Same-Sex Marriage: Anne Hathaway, Reason, and Rhetoric. The post contained part of a speech given by actress Anne Hathaway in which she appealed to the notion of equal rights as justification for same-sex marriage. It is completely understandable why defenders of same-sex marriage want to make it an equal rights issue. After all, the public is much more likely to be sympathetic toward a particular cause if they feel there is unfair or unequal treatment.

So what’s wrong with framing same-sex marriage as an equal rights issue?

First, same-sex marriage is not a right. No one has the right to demand their relationship be sanctioned by the government. Melinda Penner of Stand to Reason states,

The real issue is whether or not marriage is a right. It’s not. It’s no more a right than a drivers’ license is a right…The only obligation to rights the government has is to treat equally all citizens who meet the qualifications. If you pass the driver’s test, you get a license. If you meet the qualifications for marriage, you also get a license and recognition from the government. And in that respect, everyone – heterosexual or homosexual – has exactly the same access to marriage: Each is equally free to marry one person at a time of the opposite sex.[1]

This leads us to the second point.

Second, everyone already has equal legal rights when it comes to marriage. This point cannot be overstated and needs to be continually emphasized in the same-sex marriage debate.

Often it is said, “Homosexuals are not allowed to marry.” But in fact homosexuals can get married, and they do! They just can’t marry someone of the same sex. And neither can a heterosexual. In other words, there is no unequal protection under the law, no violation of the equal protection clause. The same law applies to all equally. The same definition of marriage applies to all, regardless of your sexual preference. Everyone, whether heterosexual or homosexual, shares the same rights and restrictions, including the restriction to define marriage as they see fit.

In addition, many states already afford homosexual couples the same legal rights, protections, and benefits through same-sex civil unions and partnerships. They just don’t call it “marriage.”

The fact that we all have equal legal rights when it comes to marriage is a very important point which unfortunately is either ignored or overlooked by same-sex marriage advocates. Same-sex marriage is not about equal rights, plain and simple. It is about the redefinition of marriage and the desire for social approval and promotion. It is an effort to convince a culture that same-sex relationships are just as legitimate and natural as long-term, monogamous, heterosexual marriage. This is something even prominent gay activists admit:

The trick is, gay leaders and pundits must stop watering the issue down—“this is simply about equality for gay couples”—and offer same-sex marriage for what it is: an opportunity to reconstruct a traditionally homophobic institution by bringing it to our more equitable queer value system,…a chance to wholly transform the definition of family in American culture…Our gay leaders must acknowledge that gay marriage is just as radical and transformative as the religious Right contends it is.[2]

Third, we should remember the concept “equals should be treated equally, and unequals unequally.” Greg Koukl sums this up nicely:

The key to answering the claims of same-sex marriage advocates is understanding the basic rule of justice: Treat equals equally. If parties are not equal in a relevant sense, then there is no obligation of justice to treat them the same.

When someone demands the same recognition for homosexual unions as for heterosexual unions, remind him of the rule of justice. Then ask if homosexual relationships are really equal with heterosexual ones. Does he actually believe there is no essential difference between the two? If there are essential differences, then the two are not equal and there is no moral obligation to treat them as if they were.[3]

Heterosexual marriage and same-sex marriage are unequal in numerous ways, including their societal value and benefit.[4] The government has a vested interest in promoting long-term, monogamous, heterosexual marriage because these relationships produce the next generation and are the best environment for raising children. There is no other two-person relationship equal in societal value and benefit, including same-sex partnerships, and hence, no other that should be labeled “marriage” or promoted equally by the government. Jim Wallace explains:

We simply have to be honest when we evaluate the value of marriage to our society. If all same sex relationships were eliminated from our society, there would be NO impact on our society. On the other hand, if all traditional opposite sex relationships were eliminated from our society, there would be no society at all. There is a value difference between same sex relationships and opposite sex relationships and this difference is marked by the word “marriage”.[5]

Furthermore, defenders of same-sex marriage have no grounds to complain of injustice since they have abandoned objectivity in seeking to define marriage as they see fit:

The only way a claim of injustice or unfairness can stick is if we have a moral obligation to view all sexual or emotional combinations as equal. But that depends on an objective standard, and that is a concept already jettisoned when society is asked to define marriage as they wish. If there’s a moral standard of fairness to appeal to, then there’s a moral standard for marriage to appeal to, as well.[6]

Problem #2: It Relativizes Religious Truth Claims and Relegates Them to Mere Belief

“…based on your religious beliefs…”

Many people characterize the topic of religion, and religious beliefs in general, as nothing more than personal preference and subjective opinion. When it comes to religious convictions, you have your beliefs and I have mine, and that’s just all there is to it.

But characterizing your opponent’s position as “religious” is often another powerful rhetorical device. In our culture it allows you to dismiss the point of view without ever having to engage the arguments, assess the evidence, or examine it seriously. This is exactly what happens in the same-sex marriage debate. Let me point out three problems with the “based on your religious beliefs” mentality with regard to the same-sex marriage debate.

First, it assumes the only reason a person would oppose same-sex marriage is because of “religious beliefs.” It does not take into account the fact that there are numerous other arguments against same-sex marriage, including those based on natural law, the societal value and benefit of natural marriage, and the importance of promoting two-parent biological parenting. It also assumes religious beliefs are illegitimate in public discourse or should be considered second-class to “secular beliefs.” But as Francis Beckwith has pointed out, the terms “religious” and “secular” do not seem to be relevant properties which can be possessed by things such as “beliefs” or “reasons”:

…“secular” is not a relevant property of a reason that is offered in support of the strength or soundness of the conclusions that its advocate is advancing. “True,” “false,” “plausible,” “implausible,” “good,” and “bad” are adjectives that we apply to reasons when we assess the property relevant to its purposes as part of an argument…A reason does not gain more or less truth by being “secular”…At the end of the day, a reason is weak or strong, true or false. Thus, “religious” and “secular” are not relevant properties when assessing the quality of reasons people may offer as part of their arguments.[7]

So if someone only has “religious” reasons for opposing same-sex marriage, does this automatically disqualify them from voicing their view in the public square? Not at all. This leads us to the next two problems.

Second, it relativizes religious truth claims, committing what is known as the subjectivist fallacy. When religiously minded individuals make claims such as “homosexuality is morally wrong” or “marriage is between one man and one woman,” it is not uncommon to hear people respond “that’s just your view.” But this commits the subjectivist fallacy: treating objective truth claims as if they were subjective preference claims.

Those who make these claims are making objective truth claims, i.e., they are purporting to describe the way the world actually is irrespective of personal opinion. If you disagree with their view, by all means muster your best arguments and present them in the public square. But be careful not to resort to the intellectually lazy and fallacy-friendly approach of simply dismissing your opponent’s view without giving them the proper consideration they are due. Recognize the nature of such claims and avoid writing them off as mere subjective preferences, i.e., “that’s just your view” or “that may be true for you, but not for me.” If it’s true, it’s true for you and me.

Third, it relegates religious truth claims to mere belief. In other words, it assumes that religion is not something that can be known to be true. It is only something that can be believed. Religious truth claims can never rise to the level of knowledge. While this mentality has unfortunately worked its way even into the Church, it is not in line with historic Christianity.

Historically, Christianity has not been regarded as a “faith tradition,” something that is merely believed blindly absent good reason, but rather as a “knowledge tradition,” something that can be known to be true based on adequate grounds. This is an important point for Christians to grasp unless they want their views to be continually marginalized in a growing secular culture. J.P. Moreland elaborates:

Christianity claims to be a knowledge tradition and places knowledge at the center of proclamation and discipleship. The Old and New Testaments, including the teachings of Jesus, claim not merely that Christianity is true, but that a variety of its moral and religious assertions can be known to be true…If, then, Christians do little to deflect the view that theological and ethical assertions are merely parts of a tradition, ways of seeing the world from a Christian “perspective” that fall short of conveying knowledge, they inadvertently contribute to the marginalization of Christianity precisely because they fail to rebut the contemporary tendency to rob it of the very thing that gives it the authority necessary to prevent that marginalization (i.e., its legitimate claim to give us moral and religious knowledge).[8]

He goes on to state,

Given the crisis of knowledge in our time, it is crucial that the church recover her confidence that she is in possession of spiritual and ethical knowledge in Holy Scripture primarily, but also in the history of her thought about God, moral issues, the spiritual life, and other important topics.[9]

So when Christians make truth claims regarding Christianity, morality, and the world we live in, they should be advancing these claims as knowledge claims, not mere beliefs. The ability to claim knowledge in these areas comes through familiarizing oneself with the justification for these beliefs and the adequate grounds they are based on, which in turn comes from cultivating the life of the mind. In other words, Christians need to know what they believe and why they believe it. This will help build confidence and strengthen faith, as well as restore Christianity as a knowledge tradition in the Church and public square.

Problem #3: It Resorts to Name-Calling

“…is still called bigotry.”

Assuming that opposition to same-sex marriage is based on bigotry is not uncommon. Again, this is rhetorically powerful. If you are able to vilify your opponents through name-calling it further marginalizes their view and prevents their voice from being effectively heard and reasonably considered. It automatically shuts down civil debate and equates the raising of any moral criticism with hate, preventing meaningful dialogue from ever taking place.

This tactic was seen clearly in 2008 in the state of California. That year, California voters went to the polls on a proposition which would define marriage as between one man and one woman. The proposition was “proposition 8,” conveniently turned into “proposition hate” by same-sex marriage supporters. Up until Election Day, proposition 8 protestors held signs reading “No on H8,” “Love, Not H8,” “End H8,” and the like. In their minds, that proposition 8 was motivated by hate was a given. Likewise, the recent controversy surrounding Chick-fil-A and President Dan Cathy’s statement favoring natural marriage brought protestors urging consumers not to buy “hate chicken.”

Ironically, as is often the case in moral issues, those who cry “tolerance” are often the most intolerant. They tolerate you of course, as long as you agree with them. But this isn’t “tolerance” in any meaningful sense of the word. Tolerance means “to put up with” and therefore implies disagreement, otherwise you have nothing to tolerate. Furthermore, tolerance applies to people, not ideas. All persons are created equal, not all ideas. Treat other persons with respect, but be intellectually intolerant toward bad ideas. That’s true tolerance.

Contrast this with labeling someone a bigot because they disagree with your view. This fails to give them the proper respect that is due. It assumes all ideas are equally true and valid. It amounts to nothing more than good old-fashioned school-yard name-calling. It turns true tolerance on its head. Strangely enough, it is the quintessential example of intolerance and bigotry par excellence.

Conclusion: Setting the Record Straight

“Denying equal rights to another group of human beings based on your religious beliefs is still called bigotry.”

Let’s set the record straight:

  1. No one is being denied equal rights when it comes to marriage. Same-sex marriage is not about equal rights but rather is about what marriage is and whether or not we can define it as we like.
  2. Christianity is a knowledge tradition which makes objective truth claims.
  3. Name-calling is not an argument.

As the controversial topic of same-sex marriage is debated, let’s remember to keep these things in mind so meaningful dialogue on this important moral issue may continue.

For a more thorough treatment and additional responses to same-sex marriage arguments, see Jim Wallace’s excellent article Responding to Those Who Support Same Sex Marriage as well as Greg Koukl’s Same-Sex Marriage Challenges and Responses.


[1] Melinda Penner, “Same-sex Marriage Arguments,” available at http://str.typepad.com/weblog/2012/05/same-sex-marriage-arguments.html.

[2] Michelangelo Signorile, “I DO, I DO, I DO, I DO, I DO,” OUT, May 1996, pp. 30, 32 (emphasis in original), as quoted in Glenn T. Stanton and Bill Maier, Marriage on Trial: The Case Against Same-Sex Marriage and Parenting (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 2004), 35.

[3] Greg Koukl, “Treating Equals Equally,” available at http://www.str.org/site/News2?page=NewsArticle&id=5678.

[4] Jim Wallace has done an excellent job of articulating some of the societal values and benefits of natural marriage, especially with regard to children, in his article “Should Government Recognize and Legalize Same Sex Marriage?”, available at http://www.pleaseconvinceme.com/index/Should_Government_Legalize_Same_Sex_Marriage.

[5] Jim Wallace, “Responding to Those Who Support Same Sex Marriage,” available at http://www.pleaseconvinceme.com/index/Responding_to_Those_Who_Support_Same_Sex_Marriage.

[6] Greg Koukl, “Same-sex Marriage,” available at http://str.typepad.com/weblog/2010/01/samesex-marriage.html.

[7] Francis J. Beckwith, Politics for Christians: Statecraft as Soulcraft (Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2010), 133-134.

[8] J.P. Moreland, Kingdom Triangle (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2007), 76-77.

[9] Ibid., 114 (his italics).

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