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Barack Obama's presidency

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Do Religions Reject Gay Marriage?

By Daniel C. Maguire
August 18, 2010

Editor’s Note: A landmark ruling by U.S. District Court Judge Vaughan R. Walker, striking down a California referendum that narrowly banned same-sex unions, concluded that the alleged negative effects of gay marriage weren’t backed by evidence.

Instead, the resistance was based more in prejudice and religious conviction, not in genuine harm either to heterosexuals or to children of same-sex couples. However, in this guest essay, Daniel C. Maguire, professor of moral theology at Marquette University, questions even the religious basis:

Through much of history, especially prior to the Fourteenth Century, many Christians did not share the view that marriage was a reward for being heterosexual, nor that a same-sex union was objectionable. 

An icon from St. Catherine’s monastery on Mount Sinai illustrates this point. It shows two robed Christian saints getting married. Their pronubus (official witness, or “best man”) is none other than Jesus Christ.

It is a standard Roman portrayal of a wedding. The difference: the two saints are both male, Fourth Century Christian martyrs, Saint Serge and Saint Bacchus, close friends in the Roman army who were purportedly singled out for their secret adherence to Christianity before being tortured and killed.

Their unity, considered romantic by some historians and depicted through the image of marriage at St. Catherine’s monastery, was commemorated in many subsequent liturgies. The late Yale historian John Boswell found evidence for other Christian same-sex marriage ceremonies continuing even into the Eighteenth Century. 

It is broadly and falsely assumed that the world’s religions uniformly condemn same-sex unions. That error is even repeated in the recent favorable decision on same-sex marriage by Chief Judge of Federal District Court in San Francisco, Vaughan R. Walker. 

It is true that all major religions exhibit some heterosexism, a bias in favor of heterosexuality over homosexuality. However, religions also have shown openness to same-sex unions, a reality that shrill conservative commentary, which dominates the public square on matters religious and sexual, has blocked from public view, even from the view of Judge Walker.

Conservative Christians who swarm onto center stage in the current debates cite the anti-gay texts from the Bible, but even they do not take those passages seriously since the texts call for capital punishment for active gays. Not even the Tea Party folk favor that.

Leviticus says that anyone who has sex with someone of the same sex “shall be put to death: their blood shall be on their own heads.” (Leviticus 20:13)  Paul writing to the Romans says those who do such things “deserve to die.” (1:26-32).

These isolated texts – like other biblical passages permitting slavery, animal sacrifice and polygamy – are not applicable to today, though they continue to do mischief in modern churches and in the chambers of lawmakers.

These passages also run counter to Jesus’s teachings in the gospels where he defends the persecuted, including those accused of sexual offenses, famously demanding of Israelites who were preparing to stone to death an alleged adulteress that “he that is without sin among you, let him cast the first stone at her.”

That tolerance, often in the face of cruel intolerance, guided many early believers in Christianity. And, like early Christianity, other world religions have demonstrated tolerance toward same-sex unions.

Many Buddhist authorities insist that privileging one sexual orientation over another is not the path of wisdom and insist that the successful management of sexual desire is the moral issue, not the orientation of that desire or the gender of your lover.

Jewish scholars show that compulsory hetero-normativity is not supported by basic Jewish values.

Pioneering scholars in Islam argue that in spite of the negative Qur’anic texts on homosexuality, a solid Muslim case, based on Islamic justice, can be made for same-sex unions. Observant Muslim lesbians, known as the Samadiyyah, are living out this expression of Muslim life and tolerance.

Some Native American religions portrayed “two-spirited,” persons, i.e. sexual minorities, in a very positive light.

Hindu scholars have shown that respect for diversity is at the heart of Hindu cultures.  Since early times, the Hindus saw that persons were not divided neatly into male and female and spoke of a “third sex” which opened space for and normalized gender and sexual variety and same-sex unions.

The religious view supporting same-sex unions coexists with equal standing alongside the conservative, restrictive view.

Lawmakers take note: because religions give this warranty and allow for this freedom of same-sex unions, laws that would legalize only the conservative religious view are in violation of religious freedom.

Religions are pluralistic on same-sex unions. It is not the function of law to curtail freedoms granted and authorized by mainstream religions.

Conservative Christians who insist that "traditional marriage" has always been "between a man and a woman" are wrong and historically uninformed. Thus, they are poor guides for lawmakers and judges.
There is strong support in world religions for the view that homosexuality is not the problem; heterosexism is.

The principles of justice and equality that pulsate through those flawed but powerful classics that we call the “world religions,” are moving toward seeing heterosexism, with its resistance to same-sex loving unions, as a prejudice in a class with sexism, racism, anti-Arabism and anti-Semitism.

Humanity needs its exuberant diversity but humans shrink from it.

As theologian William Sloane Coffin said: “Diversity may be the hardest thing for a society to live with — and perhaps the most dangerous thing to live without.”
(For further reading, see Same-Sex Unions in Premodern Europe by John Boswell, and Heterosexism in Contemporary World Religion: Problem and Prospect, Marvin Ellison and Judith Plaskow, editors.)

Daniel C. Maguire is a Professor of Moral Theology at Marquette University, a Catholic, Jesuit institution in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. He can be reached at

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