ACT 1: Adoption
Proposed Initiative Act No. 1, also known as the Unmarried Couple Adoption Ban, appeared as an initiated state statute on the Nov. 4, 2008, ballot in Arkansas, where it was approved.
The ban made it illegal for any individuals cohabiting outside of a valid marriage to adopt or provide foster care to minors. While the measure was proposed primarily to prohibit same-sex couples from being adoptive or foster parents, the ban also applied to all otherwise qualified couples who are not legally married.
There were hopes that both sides of the spectrum could agree to dismiss the measure; however, large support from faith-based communities fostered the ban’s acceptance:
“One might think that faith communities, whether conservative or liberal, would support increasing the number of homes for children in need. Conservative churches, especially, are known as strong supporters of adoption. Unfortunately, such support tends to evaporate in certain faith communities when the prospective parents are gay, lesbian or bisexual,” reads an analysis conducted by the Center for American Progress.
Supporters of the ban found an exceptional ally in the evangelical Christian community. Through grassroots networking that spread from church-to-church across Arkansas, supporters of Act 1 gathered signatures and votes, with the ultimate goal (and success) of banning same-sex couples from fostering and adopting children.
Act 1 was overturned by Pulaski Circuit Court Judge Chris Piazz in 2009, and was ultimately overturned by the Arkansas Supreme Court in 2011, but opponents of the ban, and members and allies of the LGBT community were still very much aware of the loss.
The drama that unfolded during the controversy highlighted a deep chasm between the faith-based and LGBT communities. Unmarried and same-sex couples had received a rejection not only from the faith-based councils that championed the ban, but also 57 percent of Arkansas voters.
Religious views often impact the way in which citizens cast votes and view legislation, especially in regard to social topics. Grassroots networking through churches is not a new concept, and though the 2008 Act 1 vote cast churches in the role of preserving traditional values; churches and faith-based communities have historically served as proponents of social change and civil equality.
In the article “The Role of Religion in the Civil Rights Movement,” Bernard LaFayette writes, “Faith in many instances has been the fuel that has fed the passionate flame in the fight for freedom. Our American history is replete with examples of people of faith, who have, in a defiant manner, broken the vessels of traditional and sacred values in order to serve up revolutionary social change.”
Recent repeals of legislation such as Don’t Ask Don’t Tell and Proposition 8 have provided hope for members of the national LGBT community, but in Arkansas, the stalemate between social progress and preservation continues.
Examining the evolving attitudes of faith-based communities in regard to their LGBT members is instrumental in understanding the tension that pervades the concepts of traditional marriage, family and sex.
The Center for Progress pinpoints moral equality as one of the fundamental hurdles in the LGBT community’s fight for civil equality:
… “Equality and justice for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people is more than a civil rights and human rights issue. It is also a deeply moral issue. For people of faith, such equality is premised upon the fact of being worthy and good in God’s eyes.”
However, many faith communities still perceive homosexuality to be inherently sinful, making it difficult for members of the LGBT community to find acceptance or support in traditional religious factions.
The Importance of Marriage
Larry Page is the director of the Arkansas Faith and Ethics Council, which represents the interests of Evangelical and Conservative Churches across Arkansas. The AFEC supported Act 1 in 2008 and currently states on its Website that “homosexual relationships are harmful to society and such relationships should not be granted government approval and sanction.”
Page says the specifics of how same-sex marriage would affect society are speculative, and he appeals to tradition and the Biblical model as the foundations of his opinion.
“In five thousand years of recorded history, no civilization, no matter how remote or how connected, has ever embraced same-sex marriage or its equivalent in society. If this was normal, right and proper, don’t you think someone would have gotten it right in five thousand years?”
On the AEFC Website, Genesis 1:27 and 2:24 are used to describe the council’s definition of marriage between a man and a woman. “So God created man in His own image … male and female. He created them …. therefore, a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and they shall become one flesh.”
In 2004, 75 percent of Arkansans voted to define marriage in the same way: as between a man and a woman. Yet, even in the widely conservative state of Arkansas, there are some churches that support LGBT relationships. St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Fayetteville has offered blessings for same-sex commitment ceremonies since 2006.
“We all have to act appropriately, with regard to our attractions, but if you are gay, your predominant attraction will be to someone of the same gender,” says Pastor Lowell Grisham of St. Paul’s. “What’s happened to me, and to many in the church, is that we’ve seen faithful, loving and monogamous, fruitful relationships among committed gay couples. One of the scriptures I look to for guidance on this is from St. Paul. Galatians 5:22-23: Paul says, ‘The fruit of the spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, gentleness, goodness, faith, meekness and temperance — against these there is no law.’”
Page says all men are sinners, and all Christians are sinners as well, which means everyone is welcome in the church.
“Can homosexuals be a part of a faith community? Sure, absolutely,” says Page. “I don’t think churches have a problem with those who have [homosexual] tendencies.”
However, for Page, an ethical problem lies in homosexual behavior. He argues that because the Bible does not provide a definition of marriage that includes same-sex relationships, any sexual activity would occur outside of marriage and would, therefore, be an adulterous act. To celebrate or flaunt a homosexual relationship in most Evangelical or Conservative churches would be viewed as the equivalent of openly carrying on an adulterous affair within the congregation.
For members of the LGBT community who wish to live by traditional morals, a monogamous marriage is essential to participating in a larger community of faith. However, without a path to marriage, many members of the LGBT community can become alienated from or resistant to religious teachings.
“Many gay people grow up in churches that teach that same sex orientation is disordered, condemned by God and inherently sinful. And so people who grow up in churches like that, if they are gay, and find themselves in a deep crises of identity,” says Grisham.
“What’s more common is that a young person growing up gay in rural Arkansas, will go to church and feel judged and inherently sinful or weird. Sometimes that can lead to profound suffering,” he continues.
Grisham views sexual orientation as a mystery. “There is research that points toward some inherited tendency toward sexual orientation. There’s some research that implies there may be environmental factors, but sexual orientation seems to be set by about age three, and is not subject to change,” he says.
Moral equality stems from the perception that every person-gay or straight-is created in the image of God. “To call sinful a person’s core identity is to challenge the wisdom and judgment of God, rather than to celebrate the diversity of God’s creation,” writes the Center for Progress.
A Place to Sing and Shout
During the Civil Rights movement, the church was a place where people of different social and economic groups came together, united by their faith and a sense of humanitarian justice. Spiritual leaders also led the way for revolution, using theology to guide them in a struggle that reflected the oppressed people of Biblical ages.
“(The church) was a facility in the community beyond the control of the white power structure. It was a place where people could express themselves without reprisal. It was a place where people could speak the truth, where they could sing and even shout,” writes Bernard LaFayette.
In a time of socio-political flux, the church again has become a place to worship, to study and to share in opinions, thoughts and ideals. Even in St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, where same-sex blessings are offered, there was initial contention surrounding the issue of homosexuality. By offering a safe and supportive environment, the church was able to facilitate a productive discussion in which members of both sides were empowered and given a voice.
Grisham, who lived in Mississippi during the Civil Rights movement, compares the current political climate surrounding the LGBT community to racial discrimination.
“We lived through this in the days of racial segregation. Interracial marriage was illegal in many states. Black people couldn’t attend schools, go to restaurants, use the same water fountain or restrooms. Or sit in the same section of theaters as white people. That was wrong. That was discrimination.
“Discrimination against LGBT person is wrong in the same way,” he says.
Page argues that sexual orientation is a poor comparison to the racial injustices of the past. He quotes former Secretary of State Colin Powell, as saying, “Skin color is a benign, nonbehavioral characteristic. Sexual orientation is perhaps the most profound of human behavioral characteristics. Comparison of the two is a convenient but invalid argument.”
The reference comes at an interesting time, as Colin Powell recently came out as a supporter of gay marriage in an interview with CNN’s Wolf Blitzer, saying, “I don’t see any reason not to say that (same-sex couples) should be able to get married under the laws of their state or the laws of the country.”
This evolution of opinion to accommodate modern culture is exactly what Page and Evangelical and Conservative churches are resisting.
According to Page, acceptance of homosexuality and same-sex relationships is not an issue of individual rights, but is instead a fight to preserve and adhere to the Biblical traditions that have been in place for thousands of years and are not subject to change.
“There’s only one model: Biblical truth. It’s not based on a focus group or popular opinion or conventional wisdom. It is clear to many of us that there is one model, and one model only,” he says.
According to Grisham, if one were to take the religious taboo out of the equation, the solution would be a simple question of equality.
“This seems like a very easy decision for the government,” Grisham says. “This is a matter of civil rights, and it is wrong to discriminate against our citizens who are gay. So gay couples should be able to adopt and foster children, just like straight couples, and they should be able to enter into a civil union or marriage, just like straight couples. That’s a matter of equal rights and civil rights.”
However, in the context of a holy union and religious ceremony, the issue of same-sex marriage becomes more complicated, as religious freedom comes into play.
“Religions have the constitutional right to define their own rituals of marriage or blessing if they wish,” explains Grisham. “The government can’t tell any church who to marry. I have legal and ecclesiastical right to refuse to marry anyone for any reason I believe to be compelling, and I decline to preside at some weddings. I’m going to use the same standards. Sexual orientation isn’t one of the deciding factors.”
It took four years for St. Paul’s Episcopal Church to offer a right of blessing to committed same-sex couples. The church offered a safe environment for conversation, inviting an equal number of people who were for and against, to complete a reconciliation exercise. They also allowed people of both opinions to speak their minds without interruption.
“What they said afterward was that no one changed their minds, but they left that process loving everyone in the room. We recognized that good people disagree about this. We worked hard to give everyone a voice and recognized that good people come to different opinions,” says Grisham.
For Page, there is no evolution on the stance of marriage; but having a voice and influencing the evolution is of the utmost importance.
“We just want to be part of the discussion,” says Page. “We understand that America is undergoing a transformation. Demonizing the other side, there’s no place for that. It’s a divisive and emotional issue. My greatest regret … in these culture wars, is that we’ve gotten to a point where if you don’t agree with me, there’s something wrong with you. But that’s not necessarily so. We just come from different backgrounds.”
“I can’t change the way I read the scriptures in the context of what’s popular. I have no rancor or animosity for homosexuals, I’m just trying to uphold God’s model for marriage. And that is clearly one man and one woman for life,” explains Page.
“There’s no rancor. There’s no hate. It’s just holding what we think are basic Biblical values that we think are good for culture and good for society. But I understand well-meaning people on the other side, and I respect their opinion, and I vouch for their right to do that,” he continues. “For those of us who accept gay relationships, the primary law we turn to is the law of love. Jesus summarized all of the commandments, saying, Love God and Love your neighbor as yourself. Jesus gave the church the new commandment, love one another, and St. John says simply, God is Love,” says Grisham.
Although these discussions are happening within church communities, the struggle of moral equality is rarely a topic of conversation in the larger context of the debate. To discuss same-sex marriage without addressing the concept of moral equality is to ignore an important piece of the puzzle. For many members of the LGBT community, the struggle down the church aisle is more complicated than a marriage ceremony. It is a struggle to be accepted as moral equals in religious communities that set the boundaries of acceptable social behavior.