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Dissecting The ERLC’s Impotent Defense of Marriage

As the so-called Respect of Marriage Act progresses from the House of Representatives to the US Senate, it has garnered the attention of mainstream conservative and Christian outlets. Unfortunately, since the passage in the House, where an odd set of 47 republicans voted to affirm gay “marriage” in a massive moment of liberal drift, it has become expected that the senate will do the same.

In order to become law, it must meet the 60 senator threshold to elude filibuster, which thanks to the republican class of senators is increasingly likely. In the affirmative column likely would be Mitt Romney, Susan Collins, Lisa Murkowski, Rob Portman, Ron Johnson, Richard Burr, Thom Tillis, and Pat Toomey. Doubtless there are others testing the winds.

In an effort to defend the institution and sanctity of marriage, the ERLC sent a letter written by Brent Leatherwood, the same man who defended making abortion unthinkable, to each of the senators.

The letter dated July 26, 2022 reads as follows:

Dear Senators,

I am writing to you today as the Acting President of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission (ERLC). Our organization serves as the public policy arm of the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC), the nation’s largest Protestant denomination with over 50,000 churches and congregations and nearly 14 million members. The purpose of this message is to convey my profound concerns about H.R. 8404, the “Respect for Marriage Act.” The ERLC stands firmly opposed to this legislation, and I urge you to vote against its passage should it be scheduled for a vote.

Marriage is an institution created by God, not by man. No individual or government has the authority or ability to supersede its design. Marriage requires the specific union of a man and a woman for life (Gen. 2:24). Attempts to misapply or expand the term beyond these distinct parameters go against God’s purpose and will lead people astray from what was meant for our flourishing.

This is a pretty standard definition of marriage, in that it emphasizes the origins in Genesis and that God created this institution, not man. Leatherwood hints this notion that deviating from the created design is contrary to human flourishing but never really explores the meaning of this statement or its implications.

Given the significant role marriage plays in faith, the “Respect for Marriage Act” raises serious religious liberty concerns for individuals and organizations who maintain this view of marriage and are in contract with, funded by, or working jointly with the government. Since the Obergefell v. Hodges decision in 2015, questions have been raised and litigated surrounding rights of conscience and religious freedom. For example, the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that a Colorado cake baker can serve others according to his sincerely held religious belief. Similarly, the court has sided with a Philadelphia Catholic foster care and adoption agency saying it could continue serving children and families according to their convictions.

Leatherwood alludes to two relatively recent Supreme Court cases which occurred in the nuclear fallout of Obergefell. Jack Phillips of Masterpiece Cakeshop was decided by technicality, where the Supreme Court ruled that Colorado had acted with animus towards his religious convictions. They did not rule on whether he had the right to refuse service. By punting on the issue, Phillips was again targeted by the gays because the court failed to rule on the merits of the issue. Others since then have been forced out of business or left hung out to dry by the courts refusal to rule on the question of whether one should be forced to cater to specific needs contrary to their religious conscious. In Fulton v. City of Philadelphia, which involved the Catholic adoption agency, the court did not actually render a ruling applicable for precedent in other jurisdictions, as pointed out in a concurring decision by Samuel Alito.

In neither case did the court definitively side with the Christians, merely ruling in technicality. That Leatherwood, who heads an entity that submits amicus briefs to SCOTUS, fails to recognize that these wins are trite, reflects both a blindness and lack of urgency. Furthermore, in citing the questions of religious liberty, Leatherwood gives the appearance that gay “marriage” has not negatively affected Christian practice because they “won” in these two cases. In reality, these cases are not touchdowns for Christians, they are punts. The constant threat of Christian conscious following Obergefell needs to be forthright in this letter, and Leatherwood does not convey the gravity of those suffering under the boot of Civil Rights Commissions and other forms bureaucratic tyranny. At worse, this law allows the federal government to get involved in persecuting dissenters or those who would fight for biblical marriage.

It also is unclear whether the “Respect for Marriage Act” would codify federal recognition to civil marriages that go beyond the scope of two individuals in states that allow it. As an example, several cities in Massachusetts have legally recognized polygamous relationships. Given that there’s no limiting principle in this bill, it could potentially include other marriage definitions that a state chooses to adopt.

Given these concerns, it should be clear this issue transcends electoral politics. For our churches, this is about human flourishing and love for our neighbors. Underlying the SBC’s commitment to this is a verse from the first book in Scripture: “God created man in His own image; in the image of God He created him; male and female He created them” (Gen. 1:27). We hold fast to this understanding of God’s design of marriage as being between one man and one woman for life because this biblical framework undergirds a healthy society. In light of these concerns, I urge you to oppose the “Respect for Marriage Act” and vote against its passage. Thank you for your attention to these important matters.


Brent Leatherwood

The back half of the letter focuses more on the number two than the threat of oppression. Read the bill, Brent! It is rather short. Presently, HR 8408 provides the full federal recognition to “any two people” as the redefinition of marriage, not specifically addressing polygamy. Though there is growing acceptance of polygamous relationships throughout America the bill is muddled on the matter. Furthermore, a state would have to codify polygamy in order to challenge whether “those individuals” extends beyond the number two or not. Basically, even without this law, this could occur and it would lead to a repeat of Obergefell.

Where Leatherwood misses the mark is that he once again alludes to “this biblical framework undergirds a healthy society” but does not describe it for the end reader. Rather than rebut polygamy, he should have addressed the slippery slope from Obergefell to Drag Queen Story Hours and the child grooming that is plaguing our public schools. There is ample evidence for Leatherwood to cite. William Thomas beating girls in college swimming, anal rape in Loudoun County Schools, and Jeff Younger’s son being medically transitioned in Texas are all the result of Obergefell.

Nothing is stagnant. Everything is in motion. When a culture rejects Truth and God’s design, the societal decay that follows is rampant, and that which was unthinkable twenty years ago has become normalized today.

What use is the ERLC if they cannot provide a better defense of marriage in less than 500 words?

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