Wedding Announcement: Obama Shift On Marriage Equality Reignites ‘Culture Wars’

The 'culture wars' are back – at least for the time being.

By now, everyone knows that President Barack Obama said yesterday that he personally favors marriage equality. Obama said his views on the issue have evolved and told ABC News, “I’ve just concluded that for me personally it is important for me to go ahead and affirm that I think same-sex couples should be able to get married.”

The president didn’t say that he will push for the idea or that he’ll undertake any specific policy proposals to bring about marriage equality, but an announcement like this can’t help but reverberate widely in an election year.

Obama’s announcement comes on the heels of an endorsement of marriage equality by Vice President Joe Biden and a vote in North Carolina amending the state constitution to ban same-sex marriage and civil unions.

All of this means that the “culture wars” are back – at least for the time being. Religious Right leaders will use the new developments to energize their base, raise money and rally around presumptive Republican nominee Mitt Romney.

Whenever this issue comes up, Religious Right groups make reckless charges. One of the things they frequently claim is that houses of worship will be forced to perform same-sex marriages.

No, they won’t – not as long as we have a First Amendment. I’ve said this before, but here it is again: Pastors have the right to refuse to perform marriage ceremonies for any reason. For example, imagine a heterosexual, non-Catholic couple that has been cohabiting walking into a Catholic church and demanding to be married. Fat chance. The priest is going to tell them that they must first convert to Catholicism and establish separate households.

Just to be clear on this, the White House said the following in talking points about this issue: “We make it absolutely clear that we are talking about civil marriages and civil laws. This isn’t a federal issue. We must be respectful of religious liberty, that churches and other faith institutions are still going to be able to make determinations about what their sacraments are, what they recognize.”

Don’t expect that to stop the Religious Right, of course. That movement’s leaders live outside the reality-based community.

And don’t expect the Religious Right’s political allies to let an issue this juicy just lie there. Even before Obama made his announcement, they were hard at work whipping up anti-gay hysteria among the far-right base.

Yesterday, for example, Americans United had to send a letter to members of the House Committee on Armed Services – not a legislative panel we usually have a lot of dealings with. Why did we do it? Because U.S. Rep. Todd Akin (R-Mo.) put forth an amendment to a Department of Defense bill that would grant chaplains sweeping new power to refuse to assist service personnel if the chaplains felt that doing so would offend their religious beliefs. 

Now that gays are allowed to serve openly in the military, Akin says he wants to make certain that chaplains aren’t forced to perform same-sex marriages. But chaplains already have the right to opt out of such ceremonies. This new provision could give them the right to refuse to provide a host of other services that members of our military have earned through their defense of the nation.

A separate amendment would deny the use of military facilities for same-sex weddings – even in states where it’s legal – while still permitting heterosexual unions. This proposal would essentially relegate gay couples to second-class citizenship. (It appears that both amendments passed the committee, but their fate in the full Congress remains uncertain.)

Americans United has noted several times that U.S. marriage policy – and indeed all American law – must be based on secular principles, not theological precepts. In a nation with an officially secular government, the fact that some say the Bible condemns same-sex marriage or the pope doesn’t like it is irrelevant to our civil laws.

No matter what you think of Obama’s announcement, it’s important to recognize what it means to the Religious Right (and the Roman Catholic hierarchy). Even though most Americans continue to tell pollsters that the economy is their number one concern, Obama’s decision will stoke anew the flames of the culture wars and give the theocrats among us another target to attack.

Hang on. It’s going to be a long, brutal campaign season.