On Monday morning, 50 of Palm Beach’s sorest losers gathered at the Jesus People Proclaim International Church in Boca Raton to attend the Palm Beach Marriage Protection Council. Their mission was to “prepare for the coming storm against the Church” after same-sex marriage was passed in Florida earlier this year and then across the country on Friday.
It was free to register and attend. So I did, eager to understand how South Florida churches plan to adapt to the new ruling. But it became clear by the folders of legal guides that the only thing these representatives of local churches was interested in adapting were their documents. More specifically, their statement of beliefs, facility policies, and employment contracts to keep gay people from suing them for discrimination.
“I am not an attorney, but you don’t need to be an attorney to know that there is no constitutional right to same-sex marriage,” says Tony Verdugo, executive director of the Christian Family Coalition, a Miami-based “pro-family” religious group hosting the event. “The fact that five lawyers on the Supreme Court made it up doesn’t make it so.” (Also in attendance: Alliance Defending Freedom, a conservative Christian nonprofit; African-American Council of Christian Clergy; Hispanic Ministers Association of South Florida; and Broward Pastors Network.)
Verdugo spoke for an hour, providing what he calls “sociopolitical analysis” of the ruling. First there was a prayer, where everyone in the room hoped that “people taken with this lifestyle will change.” The pastor leading the prayer pointed to rates of depression among transgender people and concluded it was a sign that God does not approve.
“This is a very critical matter,” Verdugo announced as he took the pulpit. “Five lawyers on the U.S. Supreme Court, in essence, violated the dignity, voting rights, and equality of 50 million Americans in this country who in 31 states went to the ballot box and constitutionally voted to respect marriage as the union of one and one woman. The changes we are going to see are going to protrude so deep because they impact the most fundamental unit of society, which is the family and marriage.”
Verdugo continued. He mentioned that African-Americans are upset that the 14th Amendment (used to ban racial discrimination) was also being used to allow gay people to marry. He called abstract nouns like “love,” “equality,” and “respect” nice but simply empty euphemisms (and nothing like “faith,” apparently). “It is only a matter of time before judges and politicians try to force all pastors and all churches to acknowledge this decision and try to force them to perform same-sex ceremonies,” he says.
He compared the decision to Roe v. Wade. He said even though churches are protected by the First Amendment, if pastors refuse to perform same-sex marriages it would be considered discrimination and a violation of human rights. Verdugo reminded his audience of Bob Jones University in 1983 and how that religious university lost its tax-exempt status for banning interracial dating. Thirty-two years later, Verdugo warns that the same can happen to any church or pastor who does not perform same-sex ceremonies. “There will be a lot of voices that will tell the church that you have to change your view,” he says. “But it’s not their behavior that does not harm them, your view harms them.”
The culture is changing, but Verdugo tried to invigorate the audience to push another paradigm shift. He warned that with the ruling, politicians will become bolder in supporting gay rights activists and that slowly more and more Christians will be fired from their jobs because of their beliefs. “I call it persecution, discrimination,” he says. “The same folks that want to prohibit discrimination are engaging in discrimination.”
But the last thing Verdugo wants is for pastors to stop performing marriages altogether. But the second-to-worst thing it seems in Verdugo’s book is to accept gay people, like the California pastor who changed his bigoted stance on homosexuality after his son came out to him. “We are going to experience all kinds of discrimination and name-calling,” Verdugo warns. “People will sell their souls not to be called ‘homophobe,’ whatever that means, or ‘anti-homosexual’ or ‘antigay.’”
Verdugo's solution? To move on with conviction, not emotion. Apparently emotion can tear down the brick wall of intolerance and let you down. Conviction won’t. “Culture is operating on peer pressure,” he sighs. “As Christians, we are exiles in our own land. We are counterculturalists.”
He spoke for 55 minutes to the applause and shouts of “amen” in the audience. In the next portion, a Christian lawyer from Alliance Defending Freedom would go on to explain the various ways the church can protect itself from discrimination lawsuits. However, before that could happen, Verdugo approached me after his lecture and asked me to leave because I was not from a church. (It is still unclear how he could tell just by looking at me.) I explained that I had registered for the event, like everyone else in the room, and nowhere did the event claim it was for church members only. It didn't matter. I was still asked to leave. Coincidentally, as I was being escorted out, the video being shown to the audience explained how CFC and Verdugo preach inclusiveness and listed the various media that have covered them.
It’s OK. Even though I couldn’t hear the legal advice, Verdugo was graceful and didn’t pry the complimentary legal guides (titled “Protecting Your Ministry From Sexual Orientation Gender Identity Lawsuits”) from my possession. In them, I read, it’s actually fairly easy to discriminate by sexual orientation and avoid a lawsuit. They actually provided a five-part checklist of legal contracts that churches would need to update as a direct result of the ruling: a statement of faith, religious employment criteria, facility use policy, formal membership policy, and marriage policy. According to the legal guide, as long as a church's view on homosexuality is clearly stated, gay people looking for “easy lawsuits” will not be able to sue them. Sample documents were provided as appendices at the end of the 40-page guide.
“Adopting the action steps recommended in the previous pages cannot insulate your church, Christian school, or Christian ministry from all attacks by marriage counterfeits and those advocating for complete sexual license,” the guide concludes. “Preparing yourselves legally will give your group or institution greater freedom to continue presenting the Gospel clearly and effectively to your community.” Amen.