A group of religious right activists (and a couple of presidential hopefuls) have signed a “Pledge in Solidarity to Defend Marriage,” in which they “warn” the highest court in the land that they plan to resist if it strikes down same-sex marriage bans as unconstitutional.
The pledge makes the now (sadly) common comparison between religious right activists protesting what they claim are the trampled civil rights of marriage equality opponents and Martin Luther King, Jr. If they don’t quite envision themselves penning another Letter from a Birmingham Jail, they do picture themselves sitting in jail due to the supposedly heavy hand of a religion-hostile government, and fighting a cause they claim is equal to that of King’s still-unfulfilled dream.
But the authors of this “pledge” don’t stop with the King comparison. As the nation has watched the deaths of Michael Brown, of Freddie Gray, of Tamir Rice, and of far too many others, these self-styled civil rights champions liken a possible Supreme Court decision in favor of marriage equality to the Dred Scott decision. That’s right, while young, black, unarmed men are disproportionately brutalized by law enforcement, these defenders of “life” compare the dehumanization of black people to some imagined infringement of their rights should gays and lesbians be granted the right to get married.
“We will view any decision by the Supreme Court or any court the same way history views the Dred Scott,” the pledge reads, referring to the 1857 Supreme Court case holding that African Americans could not be citizens because they were “beings of an inferior order.” The pledge claims a “decision purporting to redefine marriage flies in the face of the Constitution and is contrary to the natural created order,” just as the Court wrongly “redefined” what it is to be human in Dred Scott. (Don’t worry, I don’t get it, either.) Because “no civil institution, including the United States Supreme Court or any court, has authority to redefine marriage,” the pledge goes on, “as people of faith we pledge obedience to our Creator when the State directly conflicts with higher law.”
This is not unfamiliar territory for one of the pledge’s key drafters, Matthew Staver, of Liberty Counsel, a religious right law firm. As I reported in 2011, as a professor and dean at Liberty University Law School, Staver taught students that “when faced with a conflict between ‘God’s law’ and ‘man’s law,’ they should resolve that conflict through ‘civil disobedience.’” One former student described this highly unusual legal pedagogy as, “for instance, if you have a court order against you that is in violation of what you see as God’s law,” that “civil disobedience” is required.
As Ed Kilgore reports, Staver told Fox News personality Todd Starnes that people “need to resist that ruling [on same-sex marriage] in every way possible. In a peaceful way—they need to resist it as much as Martin Luther King, Jr. resisted unjust laws in his time.”
What does that look like? Not just sending a “regrets” card in response to an invitation to your neighbor’s gay wedding, or even marching in opposition to a court decision (neither of which would in any way mimic King-esque activism). As I reported in that 2011 story, Staver cited to his students an example of one of his own clients, Lisa Miller, an “ex-lesbian” charged with kidnapping her daughter to avoid complying with a court order awarding custody to her ex-partner:
This student and two others, who all requested anonymity for fear of reprisal by Staver (who is also the law school’s dean), recounted the classroom discussion of civil disobedience, as well as efforts to draw comparisons between choosing “God’s law” over “man’s law” to the American revolution and Martin Luther King Jr.’s Letter from a Birmingham Jail. According to one student, in the Foundations course both Staver and Lindevaldsen “espoused the opinion that in situations where God’s law is in direct contradiction to man’s law, we have an obligation to disobey it.”
Deborah Cantrell, a professor at the University of Colorado School of Law, and an expert in both legal ethics and family law, said that discussions of civil disobedience in law school classrooms must “be transparent that this is not a simplistic conversation.” She added that a law professor should emphasize that the discussion is a “normative” one, and that civil disobedience has consequences, including jail, and, for a lawyer who advises a client to disobey a court order, possible loss of their license to practice law.
That semester’s midterm exam, obtained by RD [see excerpts of the actual exam here], included a question based on Miller’s case asking students to describe what advice they would give her “as a friend who is a Christian lawyer.” After laying out a slanted history of the protracted legal battle, the exam asked, “Lisa needs your counsel on how to think through her legal situation and how to respond as a Christian to this difficult problem. Relying only on what we have learned thus far in class, how would you counsel Lisa?”
Kilgore is right that not every player in conservative Christian political activism signed this pledge. But enough major figures did that one must see it as a reflection of the views of a significant portion of movement leaders. Signers include presidential hopefuls Mike Huckabee and Rick Santorum; Steve Deace, the Iowa radio host whose views on the presidential hopefuls are routinely sought out by reporters; Franklin Graham, heir to his father, Billy Graham’s, empire; the Rev. Samuel Rodriguez, president of the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Council, often cited as a bipartisan figure among evangelical Latinos; John Hagee, the leader of Christians United for Israel; and many other local and national figures.
At the very heart of this pledge is the claim that no court can trump what the signers claim is “God’s law.” At the heart of the pledge is not a plea for justice, but a plea for a legal system that yields to their religious views. A plea, in other words, to subvert the Constitution in the service of subverting the Constitution; to undermine the Establishment Clause in the service of depriving certain citizens, deemed sinful by a particular religious view, of equal protection of the law.