“Now that I have been so bold as to speak to the Lord, though I am nothing but dust and ashes . . .” (Genesis 18:27)
For many Christians today is Ash Wednesday, an ancient observance when ashes from the prior year’s burned Palm Sunday branches are applied to the foreheads of those that come to the altar in humility and repentance.
We will see a lot of ashes on foreheads today, even in the most unlikely places. Probably the most conspicuous will again be the Vice President, Joe Biden. Reporters and photojournalists love to spot the Veep sporting his ashes. More than a few members of Congress will bear the symbol. At least a couple of the Supreme Court justices will likely have the black smudge front and center. One past Ash Wednesday I noted Justice Scalia sitting on the bench with a subtle cross drawn above his brow.
The Ash Wednesday ritual is based on the Bible’s record of the use of ashes as a visible sign of contrition (2 Samuel 13:19; Esther 4:1,3; Job 2:8, 30:19, 42:6; Jonah 3:6). The tradition is meant to help believers identify with the suffering and death of Jesus as a penalty for our sin.
My home church has an Ash Wednesday service and I go because it helps me recalibrate my spiritual compass. Ash Wednesday also helps me to publicly profess my identification with the One who died for me. Of course, as with anything, a ritual can become a meaningless exercise. Not everyone that stands during a Sunday service is really giving reverence to God; not everyone that sings is really praising God; and not everyone that bows his or her head is really praying to God. And it goes without saying that not everybody with ashes on their foreheads today will be truly recalling Christ’s sacrificial death for them or their need for His gift of salvation.
Still, I’m always encouraged by the number of people that at least carry the message with them on this special day, sincerely or insincerely. The ashes have a meaning of their own and it’s a good one. After all, not everyone that carries a Bible under his arm is a believer in the Word, but I’d rather see more Bibles under arms than less. At least the potential to believe is always there.
Today, in the nation’s capital, I’d rather see more people with ashes on their heads than less. At the very least it gets the right conversational buzz going.
Have a blessed day of remembering the greatest act of generosity ever afforded humankind:
“But God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” (Romans 5:8)
In an obvious reference to Genesis 4:9, President Obama this week launched “My Brother’s Keeper,” a White House program aimed at helping support minority young men. The statistics are mind-boggling: Young men of color are six times as likely to be murdered as their white counterparts. Black males are wildly disproportionate among jail populations. 86% of Hispanic boys fail reading proficiency for the fourth grade. In my opinion, the President should be commended for highlighting this enormous crisis.
Before I continue, I’ll remind you that in 2008, I was one of the very first ministers in the country to go on national television to oppose Barack Obama’s presidential candidacy. I had traveled to Illinois in 2004 to do the same thing when he ran for U.S. Senate. So don’t misunderstand me. I still believe Mr. Obama should not have been elected to either post, but he was, and he is the President in a second term. For that reason alone, it’s important for him to be a role model for young men. Because he is a man of color, he’s in a unique position to positively influence this extraordinarily at-risk sector. There’s room, of course, to critique how he goes about it, and that forum will soon open up on the White House website. But on the whole, saying something, doing something, calling for something, is better than remaining silent.
In the Genesis account when God asks Cain about his brother Abel, Cain’s response is cocky and insolent. The implication of the Divine rebuke, “What have you done?” (v.10) is that, Yes, Cain is his brother’s keeper and bears responsibility for his murder.
I think the reversal of that impudence in the Cain and Abel narrative is a proper one. It’s not just OK for the President to use the phrase, it invites the public to look back to the Bible for a very important lesson in morality. My question is, Will the media, and educators, and political activists give well-deserved attention to the source of the President’s moniker?
The debate about the program itself has begun and I hope you’ll participate, as I plan to do. Time will tell whether “My Brother’s Keeper” is successful. But one thing we do know: The Obama White House has just initiated a major effort by the executive branch that is named after a Bible verse and is aimed at helping young people. He deserves credit for both.
February is Black History Month. Our American culture, our society, our way of life, and even our government, owes so very much to the black presence among us–and, as I’ll argue here–specifically the black church.
Of course, black history in America is replete with great figures in all disciplines including law, science, the arts, education, media, politics, business, humanities, philanthropy, and labor. One means by which blacks have made a huge contribution to American life often goes underrated, though, and that’s the black church.
The black church is far more than vivacious singing and soaring oratorical preaching, as important as these two elements are to so much of what has made America what it is. The black church is, more importantly, a bastion of intense spirituality, Christian orthodoxy, biblical morality, and positive social organization.
For decades–arguably for centuries–the church was the only place in America where blacks could safely organize themselves and live peacefully in community. It was the key to survival in a hostile world, the only platform for potential black leaders to be identified, nurtured, and given voice.
As the locus for the civil rights movement, the black church spoke to the conscience of America. Martin Luther King, Jr. was first and foremost the Reverend Dr. King. He was a preacher of the gospel, just as were so many of his colleagues. King succeeded where other social reformers had failed, in large part because he spoke with both the content and delivery of a preacher. He pierced the hearts of Americans and stirred their souls, as much as he persuaded their minds. He touched the spirit and the intellect. In short, he proved that Americans are, at our core, a religious people.
My opinion here is not simply a theoretical one. I know the power of the black church up close and personal. Not only have I preached in a number of black pulpits, and took my doctoral degree with an almost entirely black class of candidates (learning from them what I would have never learned from white cohorts), but I may owe a part of my own family’s salvation story to the influence of a particular black church.
I was already ordained to the ministry when I finally located a mysterious woman in my family history. As a young child I used to hear tales of “Crazy Aunt Rosie,” who was described as a “religious fanatic.” My father loved to tell stories of Rosie’s visits to our home when she would jam religious pamphlets (what I now know as gospel tracts) in between to sofa cushions and beside cereal boxes in the kitchen cabinets. The discovery of them led to peals of laughter and delight, like a childish game of treasure hunt. But when I finally found Aunt Rosie in a Baptist home for the aged in New Jersey, she told me how she used to pick up my mother and grandmother on Sunday nights and take them with her to the “colored church” where they could hear the gospel preached faithfully. My mother later confirmed this and told me she loved the black church and couldn’t wait to go.
While those seeds of faith in my mom’s little girl heart wouldn’t spring forth until a half-century later, I’m convinced it was that unnamed “negro church” that firmly planted them there. And this is my most meaningful connection to the black church. But there’s still one more episode that binds my heart inseparably to my black brothers and sisters in Christ:
If you’ve been by our ministry center on Capitol Hill, you’ve seen our beautiful monument of the Ten Commandments that sits in the front garden facing the United States Supreme Court. You probably also know about the epic five-year battle we fought to install it and keep it there. In fact, not only were we repeatedly denied permission to display the Ten Commandments in front of our property, but once we installed it, we were threatened with fines and the eventual forced sale of our property if we didn’t remove it. Well, we stood on our God-given and constitutionally protected rights, but, as you know, that doesn’t always work. It got to the point where we were actually expecting a court-ordered crane to yank that 850-pound sculpture out of the ground. Instead, a letter from the Government of the District of Columbia was hand-delivered to our office rescinding a previous order for us to remove the monument.
We considered the letter to be an answer to prayer, of course, and a vindication of our constitutional stand. But I’ve always said when God moves, He moves something and someone, and I went looking for both. I became convinced that the outcome was tied directly to the strong presence of the black church in Washington, D.C. You see, if local politicians know anything, it’s that they must have the support of the black church to get elected, stay in office, and accomplish something. The lesson deeply embedded in the D.C. political psyche is this: The last thing a politician wants to do here is pick a fight with a preacher–black, white, brown, or any other color. When a pol fights a parson in D.C., the pol is almost sure to lose.
Thank you black church for all you’ve done for the whole of the church in D.C. And thank you for all you’ve done for the church everywhere. Glory!
As I stood against a back wall at the Washington Hilton hotel listening to President Obama make remarks at the National Prayer Breakfast, my heart rate started to climb as soon as I heard our chief executive say, “Yet, even as our faith sustains us, it’s also clear that around the world freedom of religion is under threat. And that is what I want to reflect on this morning. “
From that moment on, it was hard for me to keep my mind focused because somehow I knew where the President’s words would lead. I knew this was his time to do something so many of us had prayed for and worked hard for, and for which more than a few had taken serious risks. This was the moment the President needed to say something about Pastor Saeed Abedini, the young Iranian born American pastor held for more than 18 months in life-threatening conditions in Tehran.
I was so convinced this would happen that I began thumb-typing a tweet on it before the President had said much more. I was already whispering excited prayers of thanksgiving to God for this moment because I knew how critically important it has always been for the American president to weigh in on this supremely humanitarian cause. Then, when the President said the name of another unjustly detained American minister, Kenneth Bae, being held similarly by North Korea, I knew it was inevitable.
“We pray for Pastor Saeed Abedini. He’s been held in Iran for more than 18 months, sentenced to eight years in prison on charges relating to his Christian beliefs . . . “
I bolted out of the room and ran down the hall to another entry where two of my staff members were seated. I caused a little disturbance as I pointed at them and clicked my fingers, gesturing to follow me. We hurried to the prayer room where several colleagues had spent the morning in deep intercession for the program and participants on the platform.
“Your prayers have availed much, “ I told them, reporting what had just happened and bowing our heads in prayerful gratitude for this divine intervention. We thanked God for the President, for his words on behalf of Pastor Abedini and for other persecuted believers, and asked the Lord to open the hearts and minds of the Iranians, that they might let His people go.
Now, don’t get me wrong: President Obama is not, and can never be Pastor Saeed’s (or anyone else’s) deliverer. During this whole drama, Isaiah’s words in Chapter 60, verses 15-16 came to my mind,
“You were once abandoned and despised, with no one passing through, but I will make you a permanent source of pride and joy to coming generations. You will drink the milk of nations; you will nurse at the breasts of kings. Then you will recognize that I, the Lord, am your deliverer, your protector, the powerful Ruler of Jacob.”
God alone is our deliverer, but He often uses earthly instruments to rescue His people. In the estimation of many, the President of the United was always a critically important element in securing Pastor Saeed’s freedom. Now, we’ll need to watch and see if that’s indeed the case, but it’s also important to understand what came before this historic call for an American’s freedom, and the complicated path that led to it.
Pastor Saeed Abedini is a unique individual. His story is a rare one. Born and raised in Iran, Pastor Saeed (pronounced Sah-éde) is 34 years old and an evangelical Christian minister. He is married to Nagmeh, an American of Iranian descent who was raised in Boise, Idaho. The two met in Iran and were married there in 2004. In 2010 Saeed was granted American citizenship. The couple has a boy and a girl and the family lives in Boise. As a convert from Islam, Saeed is considered suspect by the Islamist government of his home country. Prior to his emigration to America, Saeed came to the attention of the feared Iranian secret police because of his extraordinary success in establishing hundreds of underground churches for secret believers.
Once Saeed became an American citizen, he traveled back and forth to his native land, continuing to assist churches there and building a mission orphanage. The police detained Saeed during one of his visits back home and required him to sign a pledge that he would end his involvement with the house churches. However, Saeed continued with his orphanage project. Then, in July 2012, Revolutionary Guard Forces took Saeed into custody and seized his passport. He was sent to the notorious Elvin Prison and was later tried on charges of undermining state security. In January 2013, Saeed was sentenced to eight years in prison and eventually transferred to the even more menacing Rajai Shahr penitentiary. Since that move, Saeed has not been allowed visits. Many believe his life is in imminent danger.
Since Saeed’s plight has come to public attention in the U.S., many have come to his aid in prayer and in practical ways. His home church, Calvary Chapel Boise, has been enormously generous to Nagmeh and the family, and our friends at the American Center for Law and Justice (ACLJ) have given her free legal representation in the U.S. and before the European Court of Human Rights. The ACLJ has also launched an international petition campaign for Saeed’s release and has advocated for him politically in the U.S. and abroad.
In March of 2013, my dear friend and sister in Christ, Dr. Suzan D. Johnson-Cook, used her then office as United States Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom, to call an unprecedented meeting of high-level officials at the State Department to hear Nagmeh’s plea for the Secretary of State to personally intervene on her husband’s behalf. This meeting, that included myself, Rev. Pat Mahoney of the Christian Defense Coalition, Jay and Jordan Sekulow of the ACLJ, and, of course, Nagmeh, was what began the momentum toward the President’s remarks at the prayer breakfast. After I was given permission to close that important meeting with prayer, a long-time bureaucrat pulled me aside and said, “Reverend, I’ve been here a lot of years, and I think this was the only time a prayer has ever been offered at a meeting in the State Department. Thank you for doing that.”
But there were other, even more consequential incidents along the way that demonstrate just how complex the process is when it involves a president and tensions with hostile nations.
First, there was the transition between Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and her successor, John Kerry, which took place just as Saeed was being tried and sentenced in Iran. The transition resulted in a setback, probably because of significant changes in policy and personnel at the State Department under the newly installed Secretary Kerry. Then there was the departure of Ambassador Johnson Cook in October 2013, which left Saeed and Nagmeh without their most powerful advocate inside the U.S. Administration.
Then, in December of last year, when I attended the official memorial service for Nelson Mandela at Washington’s National Cathedral, I sat just a few chairs behind Secretary Kerry. I couldn’t pass up the opportunity, so I approached him very respectfully and asked him not to forget Pastor Saeed.
“Millions of Americans are praying for Pastor Saeed and are looking to you, Sir, to use your good office to get him home,” I told the Secretary.
He placed his hand to his chest and said to me, “I’ll do everything I can, Reverend. I assure you.”
“We’re counting on that, Mr. Secretary, and we’re praying for your success. Please don’t forget him.”
Time passed with no visible progress on Saeed’s case. Then, something almost miraculous happened. Our own Pat Mahoney, who had flown to Turkey last September in an unsuccessful attempt to enter Iran from there and appeal directly to Iranian president Hassan Rouhani on Nagmeh’s behalf, received a surprise invitation. It came from Jay Carney, press secretary and close friend to President Obama. Because of family connections, Jay offered to take Pat and the entire Mahoney family for a private, personally escorted tour of the White House. The Carneys and Mahoneys had dinner afterwards, and Pat pressed Jay to urge the President to publicly call for Saeed’s release. It was a tall order and Mr. Carney made no commitments. He did invite Pat to send him an e-mail with details, though, and Pat dutifully did so.
The next thing that happened was the President’s bold statement from behind the presidential seal at the National Prayer Breakfast, in front of 3000 guests, among them Secretary Kerry, other members of his cabinet, international diplomats, heads of state, and the entire White House press corps. It was monumental and the culmination of months of hard and relentless work, focused intercessory prayer, recruitment of hundreds of thousands of petitions, countless meetings, news conferences, arrests for civil disobedience, and even a pray-in at the White House gates that included members of Congress and Senator Ted Cruz.
The breakthrough came in these presidential words,
“We pray for Pastor Saeed Abedini. He’s been held in Iran for more than 18 months, sentenced to eight years in prison on charges relating to his Christian beliefs. And as we continue to work for his freedom, today, again, we call on the Iranian government to release Pastor Abedini so he can return to the loving arms of his wife and children in Idaho.”
The highest office of the most powerful nation on earth had spoken for Pastor Saeed. In doing so, President Obama placed Saeed squarely on the table of negotiations with Iran. In my estimation, the President did the right and noble thing and deserves to be commended and thanked for it. Again, no human agent will be Saeed’s singular savior. There is only one Savior, Christ the Lord, and He is the One and Only who can rescue Saeed from his plight. We must continue to pray earnestly for Saeed, his wife and children, and for all those persecuted in Iran and around the world. In remembering Saeed before the Lord in prayer, we mustn’t forget his brother and fellow laborer, Kenneth Bae in North Korea. Good for President Obama in reminding us of this other brave soul. And we cannot forget all the nameless brothers and sisters that languish in dungeons around the world without the attention that Saeed and Kenneth Bae have now gotten.
“Remember those who are in prison, as though in prison with them . . .” (Hebrews 13:3)
Praying always with you for them,
Rev. Rob Schenck, D.Min, is president of Faith and Action in the Nation’s Capital, America’s only Christian missionary outreach to top elected and appointed officials, located across the street from the U.S. Supreme Court, one block from the U.S. Capitol, and ten minutes from the White House. He also serves as chaplain to the Capitol Hill Executive Service Club and chairman of the Evangelical Church Alliance International.
Contact: Rev. Rob Schenck, Faith and Action, 109 2nd St NE, Washington, DC 20002 Tel. 202-546-8329 or firstname.lastname@example.org URL: www.faithandaction.org
ARTICLE II, Section 3, of the United States Constitution:
“He (the President) shall from time to time give to the Congress Information of the State of the Union, and recommend to their Consideration such Measures as he shall judge necessary and expedient.”
It’s the duty of the chief executive to keep Congress informed on how our country is doing and what he thinks would make things better. That’s what the annual State of the Union (or SOTU) is all about. Based on that Constitutional mandate, you judge by the transcript whether President Obama carried out his duty this week. But, before you read the very length SOTU, here’s a video link to the response given this year by Republican congresswoman from Washington State, Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers:
And here’s a transcript of the Congresswoman’s remarks:
For a written transcript of the State of the Union:
Always interested in your thoughts. Write me: email@example.com
Who Will Stare Down the President During His State of the Union Speech?
I suppose a lot of people will stare down President Obama—or maybe just avert their eyes—during his State of the Union speech this week. I know that a lot of my readers just don’t like this guy or his policies. Notwithstanding, I do hope all my friends watch the event—and the response of his opposing party that follows. (Not that many of you can stand that side of things, either!) Of course, I’m also aware I do have a few admirers of the President among my loyal circle, but you are a rare breed!
In any case, the President’s address to Congress (that we all get to eavesdrop on compliments of the media and the Internet) is an important civic exercise in our country, and one we should all know about. As the Chief Justice said recently, the speech is a craven political act, but it is very important none-the-less. After all, what should we expect politicians to be if not political?
The one thing I’m sure the media will not point out about the “SOTU” (as the speech is called in Washington-speak) is the fact that at least one prominent personality will stare down the President during the entirety of his address. Furthermore, no one will be able to stop the stare-down—not the Sergeant-at-Arms, not the U.S. Capitol police officers present, not the Secret Service agents attending to the presidential security detail, not the U.S. marshals watching the cabinet officers, not the ushers in the aisles.
No one will be able to do anything about this single heckler who will haunt the President’s conscience. Why? Because this single provocateur has held his position high above the reach of any guard since 1950. You might say he’s a fixture in government—and you’d be right–literally AND figuratively.
He is Moses, the Great Law Giver, and he is the only full-face bas relief sculpture of the 23 that adorn the majestic House Chamber. (Sure, there are other lawgivers memorialized on the walls, but they’re all side silhouettes looking to the Great Man of Sinai!) Moses is also the only famous ancient lawgiver that sits diametrically opposite of the rostrum where the President will stand to deliver his speech. In other words, it’s impossible for anyone at that podium to avoid his piercing eyes.
Most years I’m in the chamber to witness this intriguing spectacle myself. Sometimes I’ve sat directly under the Mosaic portrait and observed the furtive glances upward by more than one president. Some looked reassured to have the human author of Torah with him in the chamber. Others looked unnerved by his presence.
This year I’m on the road so I won’t be in the Capitol, but I will be watching on T.V. and posting about the speech on Facebook. Visit me there at https://www.facebook.com/rob.schenck and join in the conversation. I invite you to post your own comments about the State of the Union, provided they comport with the apostolic admonition in 1 Timothy 2:1-2:
“First of all, then, I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for all people, for kings and all who are in high positions, that we may lead a peaceful and quiet life, godly and dignified in every way.”
Let’s watch, let’s pray, and let’s let God do His work on our President’s heart and mind (and on the hearts of everyone else in that chamber) as Moses bears witness to the Truth of Christ (John 5:46) in a way none of us could do–at least not at the State of the Union!
See you on Facebook!
Today is Martin Luther King Day in the United States. It’s a federal holiday, so our ministry center is closed. (We follow the federal government calendar because, well, the people of the federal government constitute our mission field. When they’re not in, there’s technically no one to minister to!) Still, we keep busy on days like today, especially in the ramp-up to our big pro-life events this week. But back to King:
I have a very complicated relationship with the memory and legacy of the late Reverend Dr. King. I’m not naive to his personal failings: Yes, I know he was unfaithful to his wife. Yes, I know he had backing from communist sympathizers. Yes, I know about the charges he plagiarized some of his doctoral dissertation. Yes, I know he was far from perfect, but think Kind David–or Peter–or me–or you. (In case you’re tempted to use the defense of ,“Well, I never did that, though”, I refer you to Luke 18: 9 – 14. ) We all have our long list of sins and failings. I haven’t met a perfect human being yet–Christian or otherwise. Let me know if you have.
So, my thoughts on MLK are complicated, as he was, and as we all are. I do know one thing for certain: King was a Christian (if in some ways an ill-informed one) and he was a preacher. (Have you noticed that the “Rev.” part of his title has been largely dropped in contemporary references to him?) In his famous 1964 Letter from Birmingham Jail, King wrote, “I say this as a minister of the gospel, who loves the church; who was nurtured in its bosom; who has been sustained by its spiritual blessings and who will remain true to it as long as the cord of life shall lengthen.” (If you haven’t read the letter–or it’s been a while since you have–I highly recommend it. It can be found at http://www.stanford.edu/group/King/frequentdocs/birmingham.pdf )
I’m grateful I was born in time to live through more than a decade of King’s career. My father, who had joined the NAACP as a young man, followed King’s every movement and talked about him frequently at the dinner table. I was only 7 years old when the famous bridge walk occurred in Selma, but I can still see my family arrayed around our black and white television riveted by the news reports about it. We were a non-religious Jewish family, but we all knew very well that Dr. King was a preacher of the Christian gospel and it only increased our admiration for him. I remember a rare moment watching my father cry openly on the day of King’s assassination.
There’s one more thing I’ll say about the imperfect Reverend King: He was an enormous inspiration to my brother, Paul, and me, as we faced the great injustice of our own generation: contempt for the pre-born. King’s commitment to Christ’s second great commandment, to love your neighbor as yourself, and his practice of Christ-like love of enemy, and his assiduous commitment to non-violence informed and motivated our own response to the abortion tragedy. My brother even penned his own letter from a jail cell after being arrested for a pray-in at an abortion clinic and attached it as an introduction to a new printing of King’s Birmingham Letter.
It’s because of my involvement in the pro-life movement that I’ve had the joy of knowing Reverend King’s niece, Dr. Alveda King, a tireless pro-life advocate and ministry ally. Alveda, my brother and I, and many of our associates have worked shoulder-to-shoulder and prayed on our knees together many times. She and her mother, Naomi (who was very close to MLK and his wife, Coretta), visited our ministry center a few years ago. They’ll both tell you MLK was unequivocally pro-life and would stand with them today had he lived to face this new challenge.
So, MLK Day seems perfectly placed between yesterday’s Sanctity of Human Life Sunday and our own National Memorial for the Pre-born and their Mothers and Fathers this Wednesday. (Followed as our service is by the always peaceful March for Life.) I think MLK would’ve been comfortable preaching at both!
Happy REVEREND Martin Luther King Day!
The big news at the Supreme Court today is really no news at all: http://www.scotusblog.com/2014/01/court-bypasses-abortion-test-case/#more-203531
Here’s the bottom line: While I am by nature an optimist, and history tells me the most unlikely things sometimes do happen, I’m mindful at times like these that one of our most stalwart and brilliant pro-life Supreme Court justices once said, basically, that Roe v. Wade would not be overturned in his lifetime. (Of course, he said nothing about time beyond his earthly sojourn! Still, I’m inclined to take his informed counsel on this agonizing question.)
What the same justice did say was that Christian leaders need to go out and “convert the culture.” That’s a big challenge for all of us, but it was the angel Gabriel (who, presumably, knows even more than the sitting justice) that told Mary, “For with God, nothing will be impossible.” (Luke 1:37)
My brother Paul and I know the significance of winning a Supreme Court case, as we did in 1997. We also know that it is not the be-all and end-all of our mission–make that The Great Commission. Supreme Court rulings are narrow, temporal, and are often over-turned. Even constitutional amendments get reversed, and sometimes in pretty short order. Of course, we must use every tool available to protect human life and human dignity, ensure religious freedom and safeguard the sanctity of the family, but political and judicial methods are imperfect and fleeting at best.
Today at the Court–like so many days at the Capitol and at the White House–reminds us that our confidence is not in human institutions, but in the all-knowing, all-powerful, and everlasting God.
And in the morning, ‘It will be stormy today, for the sky is red and threatening.’ You know how to interpret the appearance of the sky, but you cannot interpret the signs of the times. (Matthew 16:3)
Yesterday’s announcement that the Supreme Court had blocked the issuance of marriage licenses to same-sex couples in Utah surprised many. Those of us who believe the life-long bond is reserved for a man and a woman were momentarily relieved. No doubt a majority of Utahans felt better–after all, the Mormon Church has done more over recent years to preserve the sanctity of marriage than almost any other group, with the exception of Catholic leaders. Still, all that glitters is not gold, and that may be the case with this ruling. Before I say more, let’s recap what’s happened here . . .
This began when three same-sex couples challenged Utah’s recognition of marriage as only between male and female. As a result, a federal judge appointed by President Obama said that practice violated equal protection and due process provisions of the Constitution and ordered the state to immediately grant marriage licenses to same-sex couples. About 1000 such couples secured those documents within hours of the order taking effect. The state then appealed the federal order to the next level court, the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals in Denver. After the Tenth Circuit denied the state’s request for a temporary stay pending their ruling, Utah officials asked the Supreme Court to intervene because of the specter that solemnized marriages would be undone should the Tenth Circuit rule against the lower judge’s order. Justice Sonia Sotomayor, who handles such extraordinary requests from the Tenth Circuit jurisdiction, referred the appeal to the rest of her eight colleagues. (Although she had the prerogative to rule by herself.) Yesterday the Court acted unanimously in issuing a “stay” or a “hold” on the issuance of Utah marriage licenses to same-sex couples pending a final determination by the Tenth Circuit judges. Once that decision is in (could take days, weeks, or months), there is no doubt that whatever side loses will appeal again, this time to the Supreme Court.
Okay, that brings us up to date, now to go further on what may happen from here . . .
Remember last year’s infamous same-sex marriage cases at the Supreme Court? In one of them, a 5-4 majority of the justices struck down the federal Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), which restricted federal recognition of marriage for various benefits as only between one man and one woman. In his scathing dissent, or statement of disagreement with the Court’s majority opinion, Justice Antonin Scalia warned that the Court’s majority had legally armed anyone that wished to challenge a state regulation on marriage as only between opposite sex couples. Well, the machinations in the courts over the last several days may, in fact, be the harbinger of just that. Here’s how it would work . . .
1) The Tenth Circuit rules–doesn’t matter what they say–either the State of Utah or the three same-sex couples appeals the decision to the Supreme Court.
2) The Supreme Court, knowing this was coming, and, in fact, having paved the way for it, readily takes up the appeal.
3) Based on the same reasoning they offered in the DOMA case, five members–Justices Kagan, Ginzburg, Sotomayor, Breyer, and Kennedy–declare all state limitations on marriage as a violation of the Fifth and / or Fourteenth Amendments on liberty, due process, and equal protection–or whatever they pull out of their hats. Voila! A fundamental, across the board right to marry someone regardless of their sex.
All this could happen, by the way, within a matter of months, fulfilling Justice Scalia’s prophecy that it may happen in the Court’s next term, which is now the current one.
You know I’m normally optimistic, but on this one, I’m not. I believe Justice Sotomayor took up this cause because she knows a majority for same-sex marriage is already in place. All they need is a case to hang their hats on, and this is likely it. Of course, as my colleague and High Court analyst par excellence, Rev. Pat Mahoney argues, “the wheels of justice grind slowly.” So, Pat predicts the case won’t reach the Court until the fall, rendering a 2015 decision more likely. (Pat added that the Court is often sensitive to elections and may want to skirt the 2014 midterms.)
Whenever it is, a universal right to same-sex marriage seems inevitable. That leaves all of us who believe marriage is not a legal convenience but a sacrament gifted to us by God with a new and exceedingly important challenge, one I’ll write about in a different post.