Marriage, Sexuality, and Public Policy

Jennifer A. Marshall

On Easter Sunday 2015, New York Times columnist Frank Bruni proposed “freeing religions and religious people from prejudices,” such as the belief that homosexual relations are sinful. But biblical teaching on sexuality is not so easily dismissed by appealing to “the enlightenments of modernity.”

Beginning in Genesis 1–2, the Bible unequivocally teaches that human beings are created in the image of God, male and female, made for each other in marriage. Each element of these beliefs about life and sexuality is increasingly challenged in culture and in law.

Clarity of conviction on the basis of biblical truth is essential. The challenges we face require us to think clearly about life together in society. It is appropriate that Christians seek public policy that reflects the way that God made the world for its flourishing, and to do so for the love of our neighbors. Yet the rapid pace of news can make it difficult to distill the critical facts needed to carry out our responsibilities as Christians and citizens. What follows is a guide to the most significant developments and responses on policy issues related to marriage and sexual identity.

Marriage Redefined

In June 2015, the U.S. Supreme Court mandated that all states must issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples. This decision went beyond the Court’s constitutional authority. A sense of stewardship for the rule of law is reason enough to denounce the Court’s activism, even before considering the substance.

Moreover, the decision radically changed government’s posture toward a pre-political, God-ordained institution. Public policy has historically reflected the created order of marriage, bringing together the two halves of the human race for the future of humanity. The expectations of permanence and exclusivity attached to the marital institution in law honored the God-ordained, lifelong covenant. No-fault divorce and the sexual revolution undermined these standards; now redefinition has negated the norm of sexual complementarity. Where government had in its marriage policy implicitly acknowledged the created order that precedes it and, by extension, an authority higher than itself, the redefinition of marriage in law abandons such deference and purports to remake a fundamental reality.

Rebuilding a right understanding of marriage in law and culture demands perseverance. It must begin with deeper appreciation for the significance of marriage in God’s design for the flourishing of society—and careful reasoning about how public policy should reflect that reality.

To do so requires the freedom to make the case for marriage in the days ahead. The most pressing policy priority, therefore, is to preserve the freedom to live in a manner that is consistent with the truth about marriage. Now that the law teaches that marriage has nothing to do with sexual complementarity, dissenters will face pressure. Advocates of this “new orthodoxy” will seek to use official mechanisms—such as licensing for professional fields—to drive those who believe marriage is the union of a man and a woman to the margins of public life.

The government may have changed its definition of marriage, but it should not attempt to coerce private citizens to change their convictions about it. Policy should protect the freedom of churches, other groups, and individuals to speak and act consistently with the truth that marriage is the union of a man and a woman, and that sexual relations are properly reserved for marriage. The law should prohibit government from discriminating against individuals or groups who hold such views, in areas like tax policy, grants, contracts, accreditation, and licensing. The First Amendment Defense Act introduced in Congress and similar state legislation would provide such protection.

New Government Policies

Emerging policy regarding sexual identity is another source of pressure against biblical views about marriage and sexuality. Efforts in a number of states and localities and legislation in Congress seek to add sexual orientation and gender identity to the list of protected categories under civil rights law. This would privilege someone’s subjective choice to identify as a gender other than their biological sex; a cross-dressing male would have to be granted access to the women’s restroom, for example. Public schools would have to accept teachers undergoing gender transition treatments, introducing young children to a topic their parents may not consider age-appropriate.

In the past, civil rights law was enacted to prohibit discrimination on the basis of immutable characteristics such as race, in the wake of long-standing, systematic oppression. But unlike the immutable characteristics of race, sexual orientation and gender identity are internal, subjective, fluid, and expressed in conduct.

The perceived momentum of these new policies regarding sexual identification—making their passage “inevitable” by a number of accounts—has led some to support such proposals in exchange for religious liberty protections they believe would otherwise be lost in the future. The state of Utah did just that in 2015, creating a sexual orientation and gender identity policy, with some religious exemptions. Now efforts are under way to replicate it elsewhere.

The Utah policy has been portrayed by some as an admirable balance of competing interests, where both sides win. In reality, the policy concedes the central issue. It elevates sexual orientation and gender identity to the same legal status as race, thereby relegating the biblical view of marriage to the status of racial bigotry. It portrays the truth about marriage and sexual complementarity as discrimination, merely tolerated for the time being. The outcome puts a mainstream religious belief in a precarious position, and leaves an unstable foundation for religious freedom. Further, from a Christian perspective, it is problematic to call for special solicitude in law for categories that entail rejecting God’s design of male and female and that are defined largely by conduct the Bible deems sinful.

Moreover, “inevitable” is not a category in which Christians should think about social trends. Commitment to prayer and action is incompatible with such resignation. Recent events offer encouragement. In November, Houston voters defeated a sexual identity policy by a wide margin. We must be clear that all people deserve respect, but laws like these would create negative consequences for religious freedom.

Expanding Legal Interpretations

Meanwhile, current law has been manipulated to advance the new policy orthodoxy. Wherever government regulates—an increasingly broad realm—the potential for such pressure exists.

Regulations prohibiting sex discrimination in education are a prime example. The federal Title IX policy was designed to increase educational opportunity for women and girls, and it has particularly been applied in college athletics to advance funding parity for women’s sports. Most recently, however, the Obama administration has reinterpreted sex discrimination to include sexual identity. Enforcement actions by the U.S. Department of Education have indicated that schools must not make distinctions based on students’ actual or perceived gender identity, even in the context of high school locker rooms.

This new interpretation is problematic for Christian schools that teach conformity with God’s design of human beings as male and female and that sexual relations are reserved for marriage. Not surprisingly, many religious universities have sought, and received, from the U.S. Department of Education waivers from these problematic aspects of its new Title IX interpretation. But now the Human Rights Campaign has prevailed upon the Department of Education to expose schools that have received religious exemption. Such disclosure has been an element of previous pressure campaigns to intimidate those who disagree with new perspectives on marriage and sexuality.

Another challenge is emerging from the new health care law. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) has proposed regulations that would effectively require health care professionals to offer, and insurers to pay for, gender transition treatments or sex change operations. Such a directive would disregard medical expertise and moral conviction about how best to treat a person suffering from gender dysphoria. Faith-based groups submitted comments to HHS on their concerns about the proposed rule. Whether they will be heeded remains to be seen.


The Bible teaches that truth exists, and there is a created reality. Even if a legislature or court says otherwise, the created truth about marriage will not change. Even if public policy asserts that gender is a social construct rather than a biological reality, it will not alter the truth of Genesis 1.

Our confessional task as Christians is clear when it comes to marriage and sexual identity. Preserving the freedom to make that confession publicly and in our callings is one of the most pressing policy challenges we face, while working toward the day when law will better reflect the way that God has made the world for the good of all.

The author is vice president for the Institute for Family, Community, and Opportunity at the Heritage Foundation, a fellow at Reformed Theological Seminary–Washington, and a member of the PCA. A related resource: “Protecting Your Right to Serve: How Religious Ministries Can Meet New Challenges without Changing Their Witness,” by Eric N. Kniffin, available at www.Heritage.org. New Horizons, March 2016.

New Horizons: March 2016

Sex and Marriage

Also in this issue

Sex and Marriage in Light of Human Nature and the Image of God

Three Lenses through Which People View Sexuality

Christian Values in a Hostile Society

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