Certainly no legislation can be supposed more wholesome and necessary in the founding of a free, self-governing commonwealth, fit to take rank as one of the coordinate States of the Union, than that which seeks to establish it on the basis of the idea of the family, as consisting in and springing from the union for life of one man and one woman in the holy estate of matrimony; the sure foundation of all that is stable and noble in our civilization; the best guaranty of that reverent morality which is the source of all beneficent progress in social and political improvement.
The above quotation sounds like something you might hear on a right-wing, Christian radio broadcast doesn’t it? I know that I’ve heard similar statements from Bryan Fischer, Steve Deace, Greg Koukl and several other Christian broadcasters. But this quote is not from any of our present day conservatives. It’s not even from anyone who has lived in the past century. This quote is found in the majority opinion of a case decided by the Supreme Court in 1885.
The case was Murphy v. Ramsey, and it was a dispute over whether Congress had the right to enforce Christian marriage in the territory of Utah. According to the Court, the law which was under dispute had decreed that:
as to males, that no polygamist, bigamist, or any person cohabiting with more than one woman, and, as to females, that no woman cohabiting with any polygamist, bigamist, or man cohabiting with more than one woman shall be entitled to vote
The Mormon’s of Utah challenged this law on the grounds of religious freedom and claimed that Congress had no right to prevent them from practicing their religious beliefs about marriage. The court heard their case and decided against them because the definition of marriage is not just a religious issue. It is also the most fundamental civil issue of any society.
This was not the only case involving 19th century laws against polygamy. There were several others which progressed all the way to the Supreme Court, and in each one, the Court ruled that the definition of marriage is the most important civil issue of our nation and, therefore, well within the purview of the civil government.
The 1890 case of Davis v. Beason provides an excellent example. In that case, the Court was asked to consider another law banning polygamists from voting, and once again, the argument of the plaintiffs was that this law was a breach of the religious freedom guaranteed by the First Amendment. The Court ruled in favor of the law, and made the following statement:
It was never intended that the first Article of Amendment to the Constitution, that "Congress shall make no law respecting the establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof," should be a protection against legislation for the punishment of acts inimical to the peace, good order and morals of society…
The term "religion" has reference to one's views of his relations to his Creator, and to the obligations they impose of reverence for his being and character, and of obedience to his will. It is often confounded with the cultus or form of worship of a particular sect, but is distinguishable from the latter. The first amendment to the Constitution, in declaring that Congress shall make no law respecting the establishment of religion, or forbidding the free exercise thereof, was intended to allow every one under the jurisdiction of the United States to entertain such notions respecting his relations to his Maker and the duties they impose as may be approved by his judgment and conscience, and to exhibit his sentiments in such form of worship as he may think proper, not injurious to the equal rights of others, and to prohibit legislation for the support of any religious tenets, or the modes of worship of any sect…
It was never intended or supposed that the amendment could be invoked as a protection against legislation for the punishment of acts inimical to the peace, good order and morals of society…
Marriage, while from its very nature a sacred obligation, is, nevertheless, in most civilized nations a civil contract, and usually regulated by law. Upon it society may be said to be built, and out of its fruits spring social relations and social obligations and duties, with which government is necessarily required to deal…
It is assumed by counsel of the petitioner, that because no mode of worship can be established or religious tenets enforced in this country, therefore any form of worship may be followed and any tenets, however destructive of society, may be held and advocated, if asserted to be a part of the religious doctrines of those advocating and practising them. But nothing is further from the truth. Whilst legislation for the establishment of a religion is forbidden, and its free exercise permitted, it does not follow that everything which may be so called can be tolerated. Crime is not the less odious because sanctioned by what any particular sect may designate as religion.
The Court gave examples of other religious practices that would not be permitted in America such as the practice of suttee or that of human sacrifice. The reasoning of the Court was that the civil government had just as much right to pass laws against non-biblical forms of marriage as it had to pass laws against human sacrifice.
The decisions of the Court in regards to polygamy are equally applicable to the question of same-sex marriage which has surfaced in our day. As much as the homosexual lobby may deny it, the fundamental nature of society has not changed. The family unit initiated by one man and one woman joined in marriage is still “the sure foundation of all that is stable and noble in our civilization.” As our governments cave to pressure and change the definition of marriage, they are literally destroying the very foundation of our nation. Our government has not only the right but also the responsibility to correct this error and restore a biblical definition of marriage.
“If the foundations be destroyed, what can the righteous do?” (Psalm 11:3)
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Bill Fortenberry is a Christian philosopher and historian in Birmingham, AL. Bill's work has been cited in several legal journals, and he has appeared as a guest on shows including The Dr. Gina Show, The Michael Hart Show, and Real Science Radio.
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