04/30/2015 08:29 pm ET Updated Jun 30, 2015

Marriage Is an Evolving Institution

I spent this past Tuesday morning as a faithful witness at the U.S. Supreme Court as the justices heard the latest cases on marriage equality. Over the weekend, I offered prayers at congregations in Atlanta and the District of Columbia as part of the National Weekend of Prayer for the Freedom to Marry. More than 315 congregations in 46 states participated in this weekend to support the rights of same-sex couples to legal marriage.

On Sunday evening, at a national multifaith prayer service in D.C., I said that we could be optimistic about the outcome of the Supreme Court's deliberation as 37 states now allow same-sex couples to marry; a majority of people in the U.S., indeed a majority of religious people in the U.S., now support marriage; and that the Supreme Court would ratify what those who were worshipping together knew: that all persons should have the right to civil marriage.

The first reports and analysis after the Supreme Court deliberations dampened my expectations about the surety of the outcome, particularly the questioning by Justice Kennedy about marriage as an unchanging institution. He said, "This definition [of traditional marriage] has been with us for millennia. And it's very difficult for the court to say, 'Oh, well, we know better.' "

But, how far that is from the truth. Marriage is an evolving civil and religious institution. In the past, marriage was primarily about property and procreation whereas today the emphasis is on egalitarian partnership, companionship and love. In the past, the state and most religions did not recognize divorce, remarriage, interracial marriage or the equality of the marriage partners. If we go back to Biblical times, men were able to have multiple wives as well as concubines; marriage was forbidden outside of one's own tribe; women were to be subservient to their husbands; girls were married as soon as they reached puberty; and widows by law were to have sex with her dead husband's brothers to assure him an heir. Definitions of marriage have definitely changed.

The definitions and legal understandings of marriage in the past century have changed in greater recognition of the humanity of persons and their moral and civil rights. As Justice Ginsburg pointed out, "[Same-sex couples] wouldn't be asking for this relief if the law of marriage was what it was a millennium ago. I mean, it wasn't possible. Same-sex unions would not have opted into the pattern of marriage, which was a relationship, a dominant and a subordinate relationship. Yes, it was marriage between a man and a woman, but the man decided where the couple would be domiciled; it was her obligation to follow him."

On Tuesday, the Supreme Court was asked again to recognize another evolving understanding of marriage, the freedom of same-sex couples to marry. We will continue to pray for the wisdom of the Justices to recognize the rights of all consenting adults to enter into legal marriages that will be recognized in every state, not just some of them.