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Is the U.S. Senate really going to redefine marriage?

And it’s not just marriage at stake, but religious freedom as well


U.S. Sen. Thom Tillis, R-N.C. Associated Press/Photo by Chris Carlson

Is the U.S. Senate really going to redefine marriage?

Here is a law of politics you can take to the bank: You should be most worried when a legislator smiles patronizingly and assures you that there is nothing to worry about. A group of senators is now telling Americans that the Senate is ready to pass what they dare to call the Respect for Marriage Act, and that all our concerns about religious liberty have just disappeared. Taken care of. Poof. 

It should tell us something that the self-appointed group includes more Republicans than Democrats. They released a statement announcing: “Through bipartisan cooperation, we’ve crafted commonsense language to confirm that this legislation fully respects and protects Americans’ religious liberties and diverse beliefs, while leaving intact the core mission of the legislation to protect marriage equality.”

Here is another ironclad law of politics: Be especially wary when a politician refers to legislative language as commonsense. Grab your wallet.

Less than a week after the midterm elections, Senate leaders are ready to push the legalization of same-sex marriage as a bipartisan deal. It will have to be bipartisan since it will take 60 votes to bring the bill to the Senate floor for a vote. There are only 50 senators in the Democratic caucus, so that means that at least ten Republicans will have to vote for the measure for it to reach the floor. Late yesterday, Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D, N.Y., filed for cloture, promising to bring the bill to an initial vote this week, perhaps as early as Wednesday. He is sure he has the votes. He said that the vote this week is “not a theoretical exercise, but it’s as real as it gets.”

I’ll take Senator Schumer at his word on that point. I agree that such a vote will be “as real as it gets.” We are about to find out what Republicans in the Senate are made of, and whether they have any real intention of conserving the truths and structures that make civilization possible. For a “conservative” who will not courageously defend marriage as the union of a man and a woman is no conservative at all.

The bipartisan panel includes Republicans Rob Portman of Ohio, Thom Tillis of North Carolina, and Susan Collins of Maine. Democratic senators include Tammy Baldwin of Wisconsin and Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona, both of whom identify as LGBT. The version of the bill passed by the House of Representatives represents a direct threat to religious liberty and the freedom of Christian ministries and institutions. It also opened the door for the legalization of polygamy, through that may not have been intentional. The bill also makes clear that the U.S. government respects interracial marriages, which it should have done long ago.

What is left wide open is the threat to ministries such as Christian orphanages and children’s care as well as adoption ministries and foster care.

The new amended Senate bill—the “commonsense” bill that “protects Americans’ religious liberties”—actually does no such thing. The amended language includes vague assurances that the legislation will not violate religious freedom but it mostly assures us that the bill will not do what no one claimed it would do, such as require congregations and churches to solemnize same-sex marriages. What is left wide open is the threat to ministries such as Christian orphanages and children’s care as well as adoption ministries and foster care. This amended language resolves nothing, but is offered as an assurance that religious freedom is protected. By the way, the language of the bill does not offer any absolute protection against polygamy if a state legalizes it in some form.

The Alliance Defending Freedom, described the religious liberty protections in the bill as “meaningless,” adding: “This new provision does not ameliorate the bill’s adverse impact on religious exercise and freedom of conscience.”

Take a closer look at the three Republican senators included in the bipartisan group pushing to legalize same-sex marriage. Thom Tillis of North Carolina is Roman Catholic, but the Catholic Church is really clear about marriage being between a man and a woman. It’s hard to take an assurance of religious liberty protections from a man who defies the teaching of his own church. Susan Collins is one of the last of the Republicans who often supports liberal positions on social issues like abortion and same-sex marriage, so no surprise there. Rob Portman is retiring from the Senate at the end of this lame-duck term, and that might explain his urgency. But there is more to this story.

Rob Portman opposed the legalization of same-sex marriage until he did a U-turn on the issue in 2013. Why the sudden turn? I call it the Republican form of moral relativism—a relative comes out of the closet.

In this case it was Portman’s son, then 21, who told his parents he identified as gay. Sen. Portman, who had opposed same-sex marriage, suddenly reversed course because of his son. He told CNN at the time: “Now it’s different, you know. I hadn’t expected to be in this position. But I do think, you know, having spent a lot of time thinking about it and working through this issue personally that, you know, this is where I am, for reasons that are consistent with my political philosophy, including family values, including being a conservative who believes the family is a building block of society, so I’m comfortable there now.”

A father properly loves his son, but must also stand for truth. You see the language deployed here—family values, family the building block of society, being a conservative. But let’s be really clear about this: Anyone who would redefine marriage, the most fundamental building block of society, is no conservative, no friend of the natural family, and no defender of family values.

We have already seen 47 Republicans defect to the same-sex marriage cause when the House voted. Right now, watch Republicans in the Senate. We are about to find out who is, and who is not, a conservative when it comes to conserving marriage and protecting religious freedom.


R. Albert Mohler Jr.

Albert Mohler is president of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary and Boyce College and editor of WORLD Opinions. He is also president of the Evangelical Theological Society and host of The Briefing and Thinking in Public. He is the author of several books, including The Gathering Storm: Secularism, Culture, and the Church. He is the seminary’s Centennial Professor of Christian Thought and a minister, having served as pastor and staff minister of several Southern Baptist churches.


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