A pending lawsuit has significant implications for the institution of marriage in the City of Philadelphia. The story actually begins in May of 1998, when then-Philadelphia mayor Ed Rendell signed into law a city ordinance creating a new marital status called a “Life Partnership.” This term referred to any long-term relationship between adults of the same gender, also known as “domestic partners.” The effect of the mayor’s decree was to extend “health care and leave benefits to the domestic partners of all non-civil service City employees.” In other words, the city would cover live-in partners of homosexual employees as if they were married.
Later that year Bill Devlin of the Urban Family Council filed a lawsuit against the city, claiming that Philadelphia had unlawfully attempted to redefine the institution of marriage. Devlin and other litigants lost their case two years later, when the Common Pleas Court upheld the city’s “Life Partnership” ordinance. But this August the Commonwealth Court of Pennsylvania overruled, declaring that only the state and not the local government has the right to define marriage. To quote from the court’s opinion, “the City did indeed act beyond the scope of its power… when it defined and created for legal purposes a new relationship between same-sex persons that it categorized as being part and parcel of the marital status.”
The case is not yet over, because at the end of September Mayor John Street appealed to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court. This was not unexpected, but it marked a major change of opinion for the mayor. Back in 1996, when the legislation was first proposed, then-Council President Street said, “I believe the Domestic Partnership Executive Order constitutes a lessening of the city’s support for the institution of marriage, and that it represents a ‘frontal assault’ on our City’s families; in my opinion, this executive order circumvents the legislative process and subverts the will of the majority of the members of City Council, and the people they represent” [John Street, quoted in a Philadelphia Urban Coalition newsletter dated June 12, 1996]. That was then. This is now, and Mayor Street has acted to support the law he once opposed.
What was curious about the city’s ordinance was that it only applied to homosexual partners, and not to people who were living together in other so-called committed relationships. Why did the city extend benefits to gay and lesbian partners but not to other live-in boyfriends and girlfriends? What was the reason for this inconsistency? Simply this: the ordinance was an attempt to legitimize homosexual behavior by granting it the status and benefits of marriage.
At present there is nothing to prevent unmarried persons—of whatever gender or sexual orientation—from living together. Couples can set up housekeeping, share income and expenses, engage in sexual intercourse, and raise children without ever getting married. But as Gregory Koukl has explained, “What such couples don’t enjoy is respect. Marriage is society’s way of welcoming a couple into the community, declaring the union honorable and legitimate. It’s the community’s official stamp of support and approval” [Gregory Koukl, Solid Ground (March/April, 1999), p. 4].
This explains why some members of the gay community have been so active in seeking to gain the privileges of marriage: They are trying to legitimize homosexual behavior. For all the stress that marriage is under, it is still one of America’s most venerable institutions. It has not yet been robbed of all its dignity, but remains a last bastion of polite society. Thus the gay community views marriage as a goal for gaining communal credibility.
The question is, what constitutes a marriage? And who decides? According to the Bible, marriage is not merely a human convention that we are free to define and redefine, but a divinely ordained covenant. In the opening pages of Scripture it is defined as a loving bond between one man and one woman for life: “For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and they will become one flesh” (Gen. 2:24; cf. Mal. 2:14-15). According to God, there is something complementary about marriage. It is the union of the male and the female, which by definition rules out other arrangements.
This biblical definition of marriage clearly forms the basis for Pennsylvania law, which states “that marriage shall be between one man and one woman,” and that “a marriage between persons of the same sex… shall be void in this Commonwealth” [Act 124, Section 1704 (1996), pp. 21-22]. There are good reasons for the state to grant marriage this kind of legal standing, and also to give married couples certain economic advantages. Strong marriages further the common good. They encourage people to work together. They provide the best and safest context for raising children. Thus the government supports marriage as a way of securing the future of a healthy society
Christians should support marriage, too, and sometimes this means defending it from getting redefined. However, as we defend marriage, we need to be careful how we treat those who are attacking it. This is important to emphasize because Christians sometimes get the idea that since sexual immorality is a sin, it’s okay to treat practicing homosexuals like second-class citizens, or even worse, to treat them with contempt. This is not the way of Christ, who calls us to love our neighbors. As followers of Jesus Christ, we are called to defend the basic human and civic rights of all citizens, including practicing homosexuals. We opposed anything that makes homosexuality the object of ridicule, hatred, or violence.
Having said that, it also needs to be said that as Christians we are not obliged to endorse homosexuality as a lifestyle, which is what the domestic partners debate is really about. We believe that the Bible condemns sexual activity outside the bonds of marriage. This is not some kind of bigotry; it is simply the application of a biblical ethic for human sexuality. Nor is it some kind of discrimination: the joy of sex is offered to anyone and everyone who accepts the obligations of marriage. What we are not free to do is to use sex for our own purposes. Like any other gift from God, it only glorifies him when we use it the way that he intended.
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