Toleration, Same Sex Marriage and Protecting Religious Freedom

The most surprising part about the United States Supreme Court decision legalizing same-sex marriage in all 50 states was not the decision itself. We heard those rumblings months ago.

The surprise was and remains the deafening silence in response to this court decision and the ones before it – especially in South Carolina, a place where we would typically cut off our noses if the federal courts told us not to. Yet in this particular case where a Supreme Court decision obliterates the 10th Amendment of our Bill of Rights, threatens the 1st Amendment that guarantees our free practice of religion and overturns our state constitution, the citizenry remain quiet.

The silence might suggest that South Carolinians grant little importance to the decision. Only nine years have passed since 76% of the voters approved an amendment to our state constitution defining marriage as a union between one man and one woman. Considering that recalcitrance forms the core of our state character, a loss of religious belief in such a short time period seems unlikely.

Another reason for silence might be fear of national ridicule – feared not just by ordinary citizens but their political leaders. The majority of our Republican elected officials publicly opposed same-sex marriages in the past when they were ensconced behind the state constitution, the will of the people and the legitimacy afforded by both.

The Supreme Court removed that legitimacy in the eyes of a national news and entertainment media hostile to any opposition to same-sex marriage. A media that, when combined with the lightning response of social networking, will incinerate a politician’s future in a matter of seconds.

Our purported conservative leaders know this. South Carolina Republicans seeking “national prominence” have been the quickest to concede defeat on this issue while continuing to parrot the need to “repeal Obamacare” in response to the other Supreme Court decision last week.

Beyond apathy, fear and lack of political leadership, uncertainty about the meaning of marriage itself may account for the silence. Ask the average South Carolinian to define marriage and most would confuse getting married with being married. Some would focus on a ceremony teeming with flowers, attendants, guests and the requisite bride and groom. Others might think of fifty good years spent with their spouse. Very few would think about trekking down to the county courthouse and handing over $35 for a license to legalize a domestic partnership. Throw in the court decision and even basic terms like bride, groom, husband and wife have suddenly become muddled.

The state does not confuse getting married with being married. When our state defines marriage, it merely defines who may form a legal taxable domestic union in the simplest of terms. It pays no mind to tradition, ceremony, permanency, progeny and most recently, gender of who will be legally bound. It does not require proof of the couple’s intelligence, income, education, vocation, ambition, future parental skills or lack of knowledge that a $35 license will bind the couple to a union that will cost them thousands of dollars to dissolve.

Governmental interest in licensing who may be married began in the early 20th century when social progressives across the United States and Great Britain were convinced that government intervention was needed to protect the family. Intervention required statistics that proved how badly families were doing. Statistical databases could not be built without the foundational information collected through government-mandated birth certificates, marriage licenses and death certificates.

Not all progressives were convinced that government should license marriage. George Bernard Shaw, playwright and a founder Great Britain’s Labour Party, observed that ‘here is no subject on which more dangerous nonsense is talked and thought than marriage. If the mischief stopped at talking and thinking it would be bad enough; but it goes further, into disastrous anarchical action.”

Shaw also believed that marriage could not be permanently defined. He continued, “it may be assumed without argument that unions for the purpose of establishing a family will continue to be registered and regulated by the State. Such registration is marriage, and will continue to be called marriage long after the conditions of the registration have changed so much that no citizen now living would recognize them as marriage conditions at all if he revisited the earth.”

The Progressive Era struggle over marriage licenses was not limited to Great Britain. This same battle was fought in our General Assembly where the debate about marriage licensing was consistently linked to divorce. Both marriage licensing and divorce were historically banned in South Carolina except for a brief period during Reconstruction when we were forced to adopt a clone of Ohio’s state constitution in which both were legal.

Progressives in Columbia, like their British counterparts, argued that marriage licenses would protect women and children. Conservatives opposed government-sanctioned marriage because it would eventually require the legalization of divorce, an outcome that they believed would destroy family stability and expose children to unnecessary hardships.

After much debate and two world wars, South Carolina legalized marriage licensing in 1911 and divorce in 1949. Our marriage licensing law has been mostly unchanged since then until the recent federal court ruling allowed same-sex couples to purchase marriage licenses this past November.

Like the marriage licensing debates one hundred years ago, not all progressives today agree that the legalization of same-sex marriage should be considered a victory. British columnist, Brian Sewell, writing last year in The Telegraph about the drive to legalize same-sex marriage across Great Britain said, “We have wasted our resources on the wrong campaign – the battle still to be won is against prejudice, the most insidious of enemies.”

Sewell, who stands as one of Great Britain’s most well-regarded art critics and who describes himself as “queer” rather than “gay” went on to write, “Most of us are content with what we now have within the law, and are happy to respect the deeply held belief of sincere, thoughtful and informed Christians for whom marriage is the one sacrament in which we cannot share.”

Sewell reveals that differences of opinion exist within the gay-rights community over whether a marriage license has any significant meaning in their battle against prejudice. Even his insistence on being labeled “queer” – a term of derision in our society – points to a division on gender definition not readily understood to those of us who still associate gender with anatomy.

To us tradition-bound South Carolinians, his words are surprising. Unlike Great Britain, our media presents the gay-rights community as an unassailable monolith with no visible fault lines. Sewell also offers a refreshing toleration to the traditional definition of marriage held by orthodox Christians worldwide. Contrast his published remarks to the absence of the same in the United States where no American progressive of Sewell’s stature dares to defend the Christian understanding of marriage.

If Shaw were alive today, he might agree when Sewell wrote “we have wasted our resources on the wrong campaign” – a campaign that goes beyond expanding who may marry and subjects same-sex couples to state controlled divorce laws – a subjugation of the individual that Shaw would never have seen as progressive.

The successful campaign for same-sex marriage presents a troubling victory for progressives. How can they celebrate an institution that their policies have almost ruined? The promise made by progressives was that by licensing marriages, the government could develop policies to enhance the family – policies that today are scattered throughout our educational system, our tax code and through countless government agencies that thrive on social experimentation.

Their policies have not reduced the number of victims but have victimized the institution of marriage and the children it was meant to protect. Consider the statistics – 41% of births in the United States are to unwed mothers compared to just 5% in 1940. 45% of children who live with single mothers are in poverty compared to 6% who live with both parents. Almost 50% of marriages end in divorce. These numbers suggest that same-sex couples campaigning for a marriage license have wasted their efforts seeking a stability that no longer exists. In that, they are now truly equal with traditional couples.

Sewell also touched on another important distinction not heard in the American media. He reminded us that marriage is a belief, religious or otherwise. We assume that an individual must “believe” in marriage to participate in the act of getting married and “beliefs” along with the actions attributed to them are protected by the First Amendment. The federal court ruling while seemingly extending rights to same-sex couples actually restricts the beliefs and practices of all Americans.

Sewell’s example brings us back around to the notion of civil tolerance. Not just tolerance of gay Americans but of conservative religious Americans too. Our tradition of civil tolerance did not happen by accident and well may be the reason for the silence that we hear today.

John Locke, whose political theories on tolerance were written into the Fundamental Constitutions of Carolina and then later on greatly influenced Thomas Jefferson as he wrote our Declaration of Independence, posited that we have a natural right to life, liberty and property – or to freely live once we are conceived, freely act for our own interest and freely enjoy the property earned from our actions as long as we do not violate the natural rights of others. He believed that toleration was essential for the greatest number of people to enjoy these fundamental rights.

When Locke wrote A Letter Concerning Toleration, religious intolerance was widespread even among protestant groups with similar beliefs. He stated that civil government was established only to protect our natural rights and had no authority to compel a person to hold a particular belief. This theory was most famously expressed in Jefferson’s letter to the Danbury Baptist Association where he used the phrase “a wall of separation between church and state” to describe the intent of the First Amendment to our Constitution and has allowed us to openly practice our beliefs, religious or otherwise, until now.

The Supreme Court decision has opened the door for a new day of religious intolerance by continuing to confuse what Locke called “the business of civil government from that of religion.” The court should have ruled that marriage was created as and remains an expression of personal belief and that civil government has no authority to define or license it.

Instead, the court issued a ruling that will restrict the free exercise of religion. This restriction has already been attempted in Houston where the mayor, who happens to be lesbian, used the city attorney to subpoena the sermons of five Houston ministers. The mayor wanted to determine if the sermons violated Houston’s Equal Rights ordinance. The subpoenas were withdrawn after a nationwide protest. Still, she showed no reluctance to use the public resources of Houston to pursue her personal agenda – a modern example of the kind of intolerance that Locke warned us about in 1689.

Her actions are only the beginning. The Supreme Court has set us on a course, especially in South Carolina, where the refusal of a minister to perform a same-sex marriage ceremony will deny him or her the free exercise of their religious beliefs. The restriction will not be a direct gag order issued by a federal court. That would be a First Amendment violation. The restriction will be a denial of tax-exempt status for their religious organization, the threat of concurrent investigations by other “concerned” government agencies, the bankruptcy that will come from the legal cost of defending themselves and the destruction of their reputation by a news media callously unconcerned about the First Amendment rights of whom they deem unworthy. If you do not believe that this could happen, then review the court ruling synopsis that denied Bob Jones University their tax exempt status.

Though capitulation may seem the response de jour among our Republican leadership on all issues these days, they can still guarantee both religious freedom and individual freedom in South Carolina by simply adhering to the first principles on which our republic was founded. They can protect our religious freedom by getting the civil government out of the business of defining a religious or personal belief. They can stop it by repealing the 1911 law that gave the state the authority to license marriage in the first place. By doing so, they affirm the freedom of all adults in 21st century South Carolina to pursue their own happiness, including who they want to spend their lives with or how they want to practice their religious beliefs. Many may consider repeal a radical act, but our republic was founded by radicals who knew the true price of liberty.

Excerpts from John Locke’s 1689 tract A Letter Concerning Toleration

I esteem it above all things necessary to distinguish exactly the business of civil government from that of religion and to settle the just bounds that lie between the one and the other. If this be not done, there can be no end put to the controversies that will be always arising between those that have . . . on the one side, a concernment for the interest of men’s souls, and, on the other side, a care of the commonwealth.

 The commonwealth seems to me to be a society of men constituted only for the procuring, preserving, and advancing their own civil interests.

 Civil interests I call life, liberty, health, and indolency of body; and the possession of outward things, such as money, lands, houses, furniture, and the like. 


A Sense of Decorum and the Coming Flag Debate

I sat yesterday at my desk in the back of the House chamber while a number of my colleagues paid tribute to Sen. Clem Pinckney.

Some were elected to the House at the same time he was in 1997. Others were members who had come to know him after he was elected to the Senate or who served with him on the Charleston Delegation.

All spoke of his dignity and integrity, his booming voice and kind words, and his love and dedication to the people that he represented.

Today, his casket will lie in the Statehouse for public viewing and Friday his funeral will be held at the TD Arena at the College of Charleston.

As the character of this good man was described, though one of his colleagues joked that he did not walk on water and would not want to be canonized, the words and actions of his colleagues were decorous.

Decorum and good manners have long been ascribed as positive characteristics of Southern society and can be found still in the simplest “yes sir or no mam” that a child says to his elders. These two virtues were evident in the House chamber all through yesterday – not just during the prayers and words given for the victims of the Emanuel AME Church murders – but during the time of normal House business and even extended to the final budget approval vote.

Decorum was also very evident in the vote to add a debate about the Confederate Flag to our post-session House calendar. The good manners of all those present in the chamber reflected the seriousness of the tragedy that happened in Charleston and the coming difficult debate about the flag.

Our well-mannered habit of being did not happen by accident. It requires a long exposure to God’s grace that only comes from difficult circumstances and if nothing else, our history in the South is a history of difficult circumstance. 

We face yet another difficult circumstance. The coming debate will not just be about the proper display of the Confederate Flag. Social media and the hyper-revolutionary rhetoric fueled by it will not allow that.

These post-modern furies demand a politically correct cultural cleansing. They are the same old group of outside political leftists who have hated the South for decades. They see the flag debate as an opportunity to call into question the integrity and legitimacy of the political South whose history traces back to the founding of the country and carries with it the original DNA of conservatism.

Their lack of decorum, starting almost immediately after the murders in Charleston, showed tremendous disrespect for the victims and their families. They continue to run roughshod over anyone who dares challenge their political agenda.

Many conservative members of the House are appalled at their lack of manners. We have not answered as we believe that now is not the time to discuss such matters as we grieve with Charleston.

Emanuel AME Church – A Slaughter of Innocents

The morning brought word of another “mass shooting,” to use a desensitized phrase coined by our modern news media. The phrase does not do justice to the victims nor does it reflect the outrage demanded by the act. So, let us properly describe what occurred.

Nine South Carolinians were murdered. The murders happened in our holy city of Charleston, in Emanuel AME Church where people have worshipped God for 200 years. Those murdered were attending prayer meeting. They were men, women and possibly children whose devotion led them to pray, yet they were preyed upon in a sacred place by evil personified.

This act of evil should be called what it is – a slaughter of innocents.

We should continue through this day and the days to come to pray for the families of these innocents. We should reflect upon on the moral condition of our society. This heinous act was not carried out in Serbia or Iraq but here in South Carolina. The blood of these prayerful victims was shed on our doorstep. We should stop and take full measure of what was truly shed here.

Learning Curves, Senate Time and Doughnuts

A learning curve can mean different things. It can track the time required to become proficient in a particular activity. It can also track knowledge acquired through experience.

I was thinking about political learning curves as I drove home from Columbia yesterday, the day marking the official end of the 2015 session. As in most things politic, nothing is ever as it seems and the end of session does not really mean the end because we will be back in a special session come two weeks though we will be limited in what we can debate.

Many House members celebrated the official end by clapping and cheering as the clock at the front of the chamber signaled 5 pm, its arms continuing their sweep toward the future while leaving some of us non-clappers in a wake of ennui.

This listlessness had intensified as the House “stood at ease” yesterday afternoon waiting on the Senate to pass something, anything, out of their chamber that we could vote on. I tuned into the video stream from the Senate chamber for an update. Surprisingly, the Senate was not in recess or in filibuster or at lunch or in executive session and a senator had just been recognized to speak.

He began by saying something to the effect that “I realize that time is of the essence so I will be brief but I wanted to remind the Senate that tomorrow is national doughnut day . . .” Regardless of a suspected widespread sugar induced senescence in that chamber, understanding Senate time becomes an integral part of the learning curve when elected to the House.

For many newly minted House members, still sporting their November laurels, the official learning curve starts with freshman orientation. As I recall, my orientation consisted of an instruction day where we were provided with a generic Staples-type notebook containing the House Rules, the ethics rules and random advice on providing constituent service and talking to the media.

During a recent clean-out of our office suite, several of us discovered an old orientation notebook from years ago. It was embossed with the logo of a prominent company who lobbied House members for votes. We never could find the ethics section in that notebook – or a section on understanding Senate time.

Speaking of ethics and time, the House spent a considerable amount of time passing ethics legislation early in the session only to see it sit in the Senate. We also sent them road-funding legislation that should have been amended and sent back to the House for further debate. The House received neither and as twilight settled yesterday over a Senate chamber where thoughts of doughnut holes and potholes faded into a political black hole, Senate time became no time left as the session officially ended.

So, since it is national doughnut day, raise a doughnut hole in honor of the South Carolina Senate. Just don’t eat one for every pothole you dodge.

Supplemental Appropriations Bill aka The Great Surplus Feeding Frenzy

Background: The SC Board of Economic Advisors was scheduled to meet this week to announce the new revenue surplus numbers (new tax money coming from economic growth.) The meeting was postponed. A question was raised by several of us as to the intent of the postponement. Was the meeting inadvertently delayed or was it purposefully delayed so that the surplus would be announced after the House had finished debating the Senate amendments to the budget?

In past years, the result would be the same. The surplus would be allocated in the budget as decided by the three House members and three Senators on the budget conference committee. Normally in past years the surplus number was always a closely held secret until the last-minute. True, we were given the final plan to vote on but only after the fix was in. This somewhat resembles insider trading, but in this case information buys power.

Why This Matters: The surplus could approach $200 million for the fiscal year ending this quarter and another $200 million next quarter at the start of the new fiscal year.

The Obvious Solution: Instead of spreading the new money around to benefit the dozens of lobbyists who hang around Columbia, just split the surplus between DOT and the county transportation committees. Direct that the funds are to be used to address serious safety projects first then road and bridge repair. Let our citizens see repairs being made.

Why a Supplemental Appropriations Bill: Because some of us figured out what would happen to the surplus and asked why. We knew that the Senate amended the budget so that any new revenue surpluses should go to road repair. The Senate amendments have been returned to the House for us to debate containing an immediate solution to stop our road decline. How does our budget committee respond? By announcing a supplemental appropriations bill which would require that the Senate surplus amendment be removed from the current budget. This would create a lobbyist feeding frenzy around the surplus. The supplemental appropriations bill is pure piffle designed to distract and delay.

Remember the Basics: Maintaining roads is a core function of government. The General Assembly has allowed our road system to decline over the years while shamelessly spending surplus revenue on countless superficial projects. This surplus belongs to the taxpayers, not the lobbyists. We need to spend it on the roads in a transparent, efficient and verifiable manner.

The Long Term Benefit: This surplus allows the Legislature time to improve the several road funding plans that exist so that we actually come up with a viable long-term solution to restructure DOT and address our broken tax system.

Tommy Stringer