Christian conservatives who say that servicing a same-sex wedding violates their religious beliefs cite New Testament verses that suggest it is sinful not only to engage in homosexual behavior, but also to "approve" of it. Moderate theologians say such a literalist reading takes the lessons of the Bible out of context.
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The movement to protect businesses that refuse to service same-sex weddings has stalled after setbacks in Arkansas and Indiana. But the issue isn't going away. Some Christian conservatives say participation in a gay wedding would be sinful, a violation of their religious beliefs. Other Christians disagree. NPR's Tom Gjelten reports that the debate stems from different interpretations of a single verse in the New Testament.
TOM GJELTEN, BYLINE: Christian conservatives are convinced from their reading of Scripture that same-sex marriages violate God's will. But they go one step further - they argue it's sinful even to show your approval of those marriages. Dr. Albert Mohler, president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, says that position is supported in the New Testament.
ALBERT MOHLER: The end of the book of Romans, by the Apostle Paul, makes that very clear. We're not to endorse what we believe that God says is wrong.
GJELTEN: He's talking about Paul's letter to the Romans. In the first chapter, Paul talks about people who are filled with all manner of wickedness. Among his examples are women who exchange natural relations for unnatural and men who commit shameless acts with other men.
MOHLER: And then he says those who not only do the same, but also approve of those who practice them.
GJELTEN: This is Romans 1:32, quote, "though they know God's decree that those who do such things deserve to die, they not only do them, but approve those who practice them." This is the verse cited most often by those who say the Bible tells them not to do anything that suggests they are approving a same-sex wedding.
Some theologians, however, say this is far too narrow a reading of that Bible verse. First, it's not clear Paul is talking about people who are bystanders who don't themselves engage in these acts. There's also the question of the historical context in which he was writing.
Professor Mark Jordan of Harvard Divinity School points out that Paul highlights a variety of sinful behaviors carried out by people who exchange the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man or birds or animals.
MARK JORDAN: This chapter is not about the modern category of homosexuality. It's not even mainly about sexual behavior. It's about the consequences of pagan idolatry in the ancient world.
GJELTEN: Jordan also notes that Christians have been debating these questions across history in hundreds of different societies.
JORDAN: So I don't think there's one answer for all time.
GJELTEN: Jordan has written widely in the area of sexual ethics and Christian theology. So has Patrick Cheng, an Episcopal priest and faculty member at Chicago Theological Seminary.
PATRICK CHENG: For me, it's important to read the Bible not just as a list of rules - sort of an expanded Ten Commandments if you will - but really to see how it is a beautiful story of the relationship and the love of God for God's people.
GJELTEN: The fact nevertheless remains that Scripture can be read in more literal ways. If some Christians feel their interpretation of a Bible verse compels them to act in a certain way, shouldn't that religious belief be protected? That's the idea behind religious freedom laws.
On the other hand, some of those who claim their religious belief bars them from servicing same-sex weddings might simply be prejudiced. Albert Mohler, of the Baptist Theological Seminary, agrees, but says it's not necessarily a reason to limit religious freedom laws.
MOHLER: People use freedom of speech to say horrifying things, and people may use religious liberty arguments in ways that would cover some other motivation. But liberty only works if it is respected by the courts and respected by the society. If our motivation isn't truly convictional when it comes to Christianity - that will come out.
GJELTEN: In fact, it is the prospect that businesses may refuse to serve people simply on the basis of their sexual orientation that gives rise to antidiscrimination measures. The challenge is to find a way to support the free exercise of religion without condoning such discrimination. Tom Gjelten, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.