Civil Disobedience and Gay Marriage?

shutterstock_124493413Todd Starnes, host of Fox News & Commentary on Fox radio, recently posted an article that supports a pledge recently signed by many Religious leaders, in which they commit to rising up with acts of “Civil Disobedience” to highlight their opposition to Gay Marriage.

I am puzzled by this: how could “Civil Disobedience” be exercised here? “Civil Disobedience” is the act of deliberately, nonviolently and publicly transgressing a law that prohibits you from exercising rights that others can exercise without a second thought – highlighting the inconsistencies inherent in allowing some people a right that is denied to others.  Further, such disobedience is done from a position of powerlessness and humility, allowing the “illegal” act you perform to speak for itself through confronting others with the pain and injustice you personally experience because of that unjust law. The point is never to directly hurt the other, but rather to force them to see the injustice they are participating-in or allowing to happen (and therefore are complicit in inflicting upon you).

Currently, the U.S. Supreme Court is considering whether to widen the legal definition of marriage, so that anyone can marry the person whom they love.  We all know and acknowledge this will be hard to accept for some.  I think it is right and proper – and compassionate – to be cognizant and understanding of this, even though we do not share their opinion, and are not called to set aside our own expanded sense of what is just and right for the purpose of alleviating that discomfort.

But, what law could those (who oppose such a change) disobey to show how their own liberties are being unjustly limited in this case?  Refusing to serve another because they are married to someone of the same sex doesn’t do it – the only person you’d be hurting is yourself (and perhaps those who depend on you) through the resulting loss of income.

Further, weakness and humility are part of “Civil Disobedience”: demanding someone leave your shop or refusing to provide them service just for being who they are will rightfully be seen as an attempt by you to assert power and control over the other, of condemning and rejecting them – not as an act highlighting your own humility and powerlessness in the face of oppression. You’d be punishing or hurting the other for who they are – not confronting them with how their injustice hurts you.

Civil Disobedience is simply not possible in response to this situation, since what is changing is that the definition of who can benefit from the law is being widened, not restricted. No one’s rights are being lost. What is being lost is legal support for a practice which has been accepted as “truth” for a very long time – just like slavery was accepted for millennia, and just like the treatment of women was for just as many millennia – but which is now seen for the injustice it brings upon our fellow human beings.

There is no right to restrict the rights of others based upon your own sense of morality; and, “Civil Disobedience” provides no mechanism or justification to impose (or re-impose) such restrictions.

So, Mr. Starnes and those who have signed the “Pledge in Solidarity to Defend Marriage” are way off-base on this.  They can certainly protest such a change – that is their right.  They can not like the change (if it comes to pass) – that is also their right.

Civil Disobedience is a tool used to expand the rights of the oppressed to be equivalent to the rights of those in power.  It must be used thoughtfully, carefully, with dedication, and with compassion.  None of these attributes are present in the protests being heard from Mr. Starnes or the religious leaders he is applauding.  Even though they may find a way to make their voices heard and might even have some remote chance of making a case that the nation as a whole accepts, they will not succeed in using “Civil Disobedience” for such an effort.  Their plans to use “Civil Disobedience” for this purpose highlights the shallowness and thoughtlessness of their current protests, and a lack of understanding of the history and philosophy of Civil Disobedience – regardless of the value of the cause they are espousing.

So, in summary – what is the vision of those who are saying they shall use “Civil Disobedience” here?  In what way will their Civil Disobedience make their rights equivalent to those in power, since they already benefit from having the same position as those in power?  In what way will taking away the right to marry from a minority be fair, when those in the majority have had that right all along?

Copyright (c) 2015, Allen Vander Meulen III, all rights reserved.  I’m happy to share my writings with you, as long as proper credit for my authorship is given. (e.g., via a credit that gives my full name and/or provides a link back to this site – or just email me and ask!)

Author: Allen

A would-be historian turned IT Professional who responded to the call to the Ministry, and is now focused on social justice and community service. He is the proud father of a daughter and son, and enjoys life with his wife near Boston. You can follow Pastor Allen on Facebook at

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