On 1 August 2011 the Suquamish Nation, located northwest of Seattle along Washington state’s tangled coastline, became the second Native American tribe in the United States to legalize same-sex marriage. The first tribe to do so was the tiny Coquille Nation in Coos Bay, Oregon. The new legislation was possible because these tribes are federally-recognized sovereign nations, so their laws are not necessarily subject to state constitutional bans on same-sex marriage. An important question arises in light of this legal step forward: If a same-sex marriage is performed on tribal land, why can’t it also be recognized by the state or federal government? Ideally, it should be, if the Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution has any relevance.
By the way—almost everybody has an opinion on this topic, so we want to know you think as a minister ordained online in the ULC Monastery.
But first let us take a brief look at the tribe’s decision. The new legislation was spearheaded by tribal member Heather Purser, an openly lesbian Seattle resident. For months Purser had been attending tribal meetings and requesting that the council amend the tribal constitution to legalize same-sex marriage. After meeting somebody special, she attended a tribal meeting in March and reiterated her request, and the tribe voted unanimously to enact the amendment. In June the tribe held a public hearing on the matter, and on 1 August the amendment was finally adopted, with no opposition. Purser’s old sister, who attended the March meeting, told the Seattle Times that “for Heather it means acceptance and recognition from out tribe”.
What does all of this have to do with people who become ordained online as priests or ministers, you may ask? More than you might think.
Currently the U.S. federal government does not recognize any same-sex marriages that are recognized by local state, tribal, or ecclesiastical governments. Consequently, these marriages are not granted federal protections, which include Social Security survivor benefits, equal treatment under the IRS tax code, and equal immigration rights (among over one thousand other protections). The culprit? The Defense of Marriage Act. Native American tribes which recognize same-sex marriage and religious organizations which recognize same-sex sacramental marriage face a similar challenge. Just as the federal government discriminates against religious denominations which support same-sex marriage, it discriminates against tribal governments which support same-sex marriage. By acknowledging marriage as defined by one religion but not another, the government is engaging in religious discrimination, and by acknowledging marriage as defined by one tribe but not another, the government is engaging in tribal discrimination.
There is a good reason why this policy is unjust, and why those who decide to get ordained in a nondenominational online church have a vested interest in the issue for their own reasons. The reason why same-sex marriages recognized by Native tribes should also be recognized by the federal government is found in the Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution. Specifically, the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment requires states to grant equal legal protection to every citizen:
[N]o state shall … deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.
Clearly, if the federal government is imposing this requirement on individual states, it must be expected to meet this requirement itself. If the federal government, through the Equal Protection Clause, requires itself as well as every state to provide every citizen equal protection of the law, and the federal government provides heterosexual married couples more protections than Suquamish same-sex married couples, the federal government is violating the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.
The same goes for the states. The federal government cannot allow heterosexual married couples more protections than same-sex married couples within a state without violating the Equal Protection Clause, and it cannot allow heterosexual married couples in one state more protection than same-sex married couples in another state without violating the Equal Protection Clause. As long as the federal government is following the self-same requirements it imposes on the states, it must grant equal protection under the law for every person in every state in order to abide by its own Equal Protection Clause.
And, of course, the same goes for people who belong to any one of the various religions of the world. Under the Equal Protection Clause, the federal government cannot recognize all marriages solemnized by one religious denomination, but not all marriages solemnized by another religious denomination, without violating its own Equal Protection Clause. Same-sex couples married by people who decided to become a wedding officiant or marriage minister in order to solemnize same-sex weddings would deserve the same protections as other married couples—if the federal government were to practice what it preaches.
Now, there are some who will argue that the federal government is not compelled to do this. “The Fourteenth Amendment protects individual rights from abridgement by state governments”, they say, “but it does not protect these rights from abridgement by the federal government itself”. But that makes no sense. Saying that the federal government’s own Fourteenth Amendment protects individual rights from abridgement by the state, but does not protect them from abridgement by the federal government itself is like saying that a mother should be able to tell her children not to do drugs whilst she herself is shooting up with heroin. It is just absurd. If equal protection of the law is a universally justifiable principle of natural law and ethical reasoning, it logically follows that it applies to the federal government with as much force as it applies to state governments. Thus, even if the federal government is not technically bound to its own Equal Protection Clause, this does not mean that it should not be—it only means that a new amendment needs to be enacted to ensure that it does.
In summary, the point is that if same-sex marriage is recognized by a Native American tribe such as the Suquamish Nation, it should also be recognized by the federal government in order to meet the requirements of the Fourteenth Amendment—which must, to be fair, apply also to the federal government itself. Currently same-sex tribal marriages are not recognized by the federal government. Ministers in churches which recognize same-sex marriage have a voice in this larger discussion about the relationship between tribal and federal governments, because the same-sex marriages they perform are not recognized by the federal government either, even though the marriages of other denominations are. For this reason, we would like you to join the debate and share your thoughts as a minister in the ULC Monastery by visiting the church Facebook discussion forum and minister’s social network.