After Obergefell: How Deeply Held Religious Beliefs Undermine Marriage

If it hadn’t been for Jim Obergefell, I never would have performed the ceremony for the African American couple, who after being married for 20 years and having three children, divorced. During the time they were divorced, God brought neither of them any other potential mates. Because they still had kids in school, they saw each other all the time, and they still talked — constantly. “God knew no one else was right for us. We just didn’t know it. So, here, we are, getting married again,” the bride giggled nervously. Their youngest son was with them, shaking his head knowingly.

God was right. No one else was right for these people. They were perfect for each other. We prayed that God would bless their second marriage.

If the Supreme Court had not ruled in Jim Obergefell’s favor, I would not have officiated at the summer wedding of the Hispanic couple. She, gloriously beautiful, in her cream colored crocheted dress. Her two daughters, fathered by a different man she knew briefly as a teenager, holding flowers and smiling ear-to-ear. Their three-year-old son dressed up in a smart polo and shorts. And, he, all smiles with a nice starched plaid shirt, just a few months out of prison after a ten year stint.

In prison, God spoke to him, and promised him a better life when he got out. All he wanted now was a family. A family living life simply, praying regularly, and being together. We prayed that God would bless their family.

And, if Jim Obergefell had never sued Hodges, there is absolutely no way I would have conducted the wedding of the white woman chicken farmer to her longtime beau. When she called to schedule the wedding, she asked me, “Can I ask you a personal question?”

“Sure,” I said.

She inhaled deeply, and then the tension of her question exploded into the air, “Do you believe in the Lord?”

“Well, ma’am,” I said, “Although the weddings I perform as a judge are civil weddings, I do believe in Jesus Christ. Why do you ask?”

“Good,” she said, the pressure in her heart obviously relieved. “I just don’t want no atheist to perform my wedding.”

Their two daughters, dressed in adorable matching yellow dresses, stood by grinning happily as they exchanged vows. We prayed that God would bless their lives.

See, if Mr. Obergefell had never sued for the right to marry his long-time companion, all of these people would have gone to the courthouse in the county where they lived and gotten married by the judge who’d been marrying people there for years. But, after Obergefell, there were no more judges in their counties willing to do marriages. So, each one of these heterosexual, Christian couples, had no choice but to find another judge to marry them. And that judge ended up being me.

For months, I have considered the irony.

See, in Georgia, judges are not required to conduct marriages. They can choose — or choose not — to perform weddings as they see fit. The catch, however, is ethical obligations. The Code of Judicial Conduct requires judges to be fair and impartial. The Code also requires them to follow the law.

If the law of the land is that gay people can marry, judges have to follow that edict.

If the ethical code states judges can’t discriminate against people based on sexual orientation, judges can’t decide to treat same-sex couples different than dual-sex couples.

So, what of the judge who performs weddings who has a religious belief that gay marriage is a sin? The law says gay marriage is legal. The ethical canons say judges can’t be biased. It becomes an all or nothing proposition. You do all weddings, or you do none.

A certain portion of the religious contingent chose none — presumably, because they don’t want to lose their jobs like Roy Moore, the former Chief Justice of the Alabama Supreme Court, did. The Alabama Court of the Judiciary recently suspended Moore from office without pay because he directed all of the state’s probate court judges to ignore the Obergefell decision and deny same-sex couples their legal right to marry.

In the Christian tradition — which I share simply because it is the one I understand best — it is believed that two people leave their parents and cleave to each other. In their marriage, they become one person in the eyes of God. Marital love is a mirror of God’s love on earth. It can never be as perfect as God’s love, of course, but it is one way we, as imperfect humans, imperfectly seek an understanding of God’s perfect love.

In marriage, the couple work together through and with love, bringing them ever closer to God. They have children, and these children grow to marry, and the circle remains unbroken. In this cycle, we humans continue to strive for the awesome possibilities of God’s incomparable love.

The Christian ideal is marriage, for without it, the wisdom goes, families remain aimless bands of wandering individuals. Together in the same physical space, but not united completely in purpose. (This is not my personal belief, I should note.)

Justice Kennedy understood this special quality of marriage and expressed it beautifully in his opinion in Obergefell. He said, “No union is more profound than marriage, for it embodies the highest ideals of love, fidelity, devotion, sacrifice, and family. In forming a marital union, two people become something greater than they once were…[M]arriage embodies a love that may endure even past death.”

I marvel that judges who have chosen not to perform marriages after Obergefell because of their deeply held religious beliefs do not see the irony in their choice. For, in condemning some marriages, they put all marriages at peril.

A beautiful young bride and her handsome groom traveled more than two hours recently to my courtroom for their marriage. I asked them why they had traveled so far, and then I looked at the license, answering my own question. “You had to come here, didn’t you? You don’t have anymore judges in your county that do weddings…”

The groom said, “Yeah, what’s up with that?”

“Obergefell,” I said. “Either a deeply held religious belief, or a belief they will be too busy doing weddings. I never know which. But, I know I do a lot of weddings — more in the last year than I did in the three years before that combined — and it hasn’t affected my court docket.”

The bride looked surprised. “You mean, some judges won’t do weddings because they’d have to do them for gay couples?” she said annoyed.

The groom said, “That’s ridiculous. Everyone has a right to marry.”

Yes, I thought, thanks to Mr. Obergefell.

As they left the courtroom, now man and wife, I prayed for their marriage, that they might, through their love, be the peace of God on earth.