Arkansas took center stage in the same-sex marriage debate May 9 when a state judge overturned a 10-year constitutional amendment that banned same-sex unions in the state.
The morning after Pulaski County Circuit Judge Chris Piazza handed down his ruling, the Carroll County Clerk's Office in Eureka Springs began issuing marriage licenses. In all, 15 licenses for same-sex couples were issued. On Monday, couples lined up at courthouses in Pulaski, Washington and Saline counties to get licenses.
Arkansas became the first Southern state to issue marriage licenses to gay couples. Seventeen states, mainly on the East and West coasts, legally recognize same-sex unions, as does the District of Columbia.
The Catholic church's "defense of traditional marriage is rooted in natural law and in values held in common through the ages independent of religious conviction, including but not limited to the complementarity of the sexes, the need for procreation and the stable family as a building block of society," Little Rock Bishop Anthony Taylor said in a statement Monday.
Piazza said the 2004 state amendment was "an unconstitutional attempt to narrow the definition of equality." The judge also overturned a 1997 state law banning same-sex marriage.
Attorney General Dustin McDaniel said he would appeal the circuit court decision to the state's Supreme Court. The Little Rock diocese plans to file a friend-of-the-court brief in the appeal.
Same-sex marriage is not "a civil rights issue. ... It is a matter of the fundamental building blocks of our society," Taylor said, adding that by defending traditional marriage the church should not be seen as "lacking in concern for the genuine well-being of all people, including homosexuals."
According to The Associated Press, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 2013 that a law forbidding the federal government from recognizing same-sex marriages was unconstitutional. State and federal judges nationwide have struck down other same-sex marriage bans and ordered states to recognize same-sex marriages from other states.
Over the past three months, federal judges in four other states have said banning same-sex marriage is unconstitutional, but unlike Piazza, the judges in Kentucky, Virginia and Texas stayed their decisions, thus not allowing marriage licenses to be issued. In Michigan, marriage licenses were issued for a day in March before an appeals court issued a stay. The 300 couples that received the marriage licenses that day are recognized for federal benefits even though a stay was issued.
On Tuesday, a federal judge in Idaho ruled the state's ban on same-sex marriage is unconstitutional. A day earlier a group of same-sex couples filed a suit against Alaska's same-sex marriage ban.
"Our nation is presently engaged in a divisive debate over the place of homosexual people in our society," Taylor said in his statement.
He said Piazza's decision to overturn Arkansas law defining marriage as the union of one man and one woman "provides an opportunity to offer the insights of the Catholic Church to each side of this contentious issue, as well as a way forward consistent with the teaching of Jesus Christ."
"On one side," Taylor continued, "are those who would perpetuate the marginalization of homosexuals, nostalgic for a past when the social -- and legal -- consequences of the disclosure of same-sex attraction were so onerous that many people resigned themselves to a life that did not correspond to the deepest yearnings of the heart.
"The church has consistently decried the injustice of this approach, choosing instead to adopt a positive teaching regarding the human rights of homosexuals," he said.
As an example of this approach, Taylor pointed to the U.S. bishops' 1997 document "Always Our Children: A Pastoral Message to Parents of Homosexual Children and Suggestions for Pastoral Ministers." The document asks parents of homosexuals not to reject their children. It suggests ways -- including counseling and pastoral assistance from church agencies and use of church-based support groups -- for parents to work through the flood of emotions and tensions that often accompany discovery a child's homosexual orientation and establish trust, communication and love.
Taylor said that on the other side of the homosexuality issue are those who "seek to redress injustice" against gays by redefining marriage, thereby inventing "rights" to which they feel entitled but which run counter to the intrinsic nature of the human person and the common good.
"The church has also consistently spoken out against this approach, however well-intentioned it may be," he said.
"Marriage is not just any consensual relationship between human beings, nor is it of human invention and thus susceptible to human redefinition. Marriage was established by the Creator with its own nature, properties and purpose that are imbedded within the very structure of the human person," Taylor said.
The purpose of marriage is twofold, he explained, citing the Book of Genesis: It is unitive and procreative.
"In the Creator's plan, sexual complementarity and fruitfulness belong to the very nature of marriage. The sexual complementarity necessary for marriage is absent in attempted homosexual unions," Taylor said.
"Thankfully, the teaching of the church provides a 'third way' that is supportive of the dignity and human rights of the homosexual person, while at the same time promoting and protecting marriage as the basis of the family, the primary unit of society. This third way is the way of love," he said.
"It rejects both the condemnation of people and the affirmation of homosexual intercourse. It calls everyone to set aside hatred and fear. It recognizes that everyone needs love, support and acceptance for who they really are."
Taylor said the church "calls everyone to chastity, including heterosexuals."
"Sexual intercourse should take place only between a validly married man and woman as an expression of their total self-giving to each other and as an expression of their openness to receiving the gift of new life," he explained.
The Catholic church "recognizes that many people struggle with matters of the heart and that chaste behavior can be a challenge for heterosexuals as well as homosexuals," Taylor added. "We seek to support everyone on their journey of faith with compassion, dignity and respect.
"We also seek to enter into dialogue with those dealing with same-sex attraction as together we seek to live as God calls us to live and to find ways to offer needed support within our faith communities."
[Malea Hargett is editor of the Arkansas Catholic, newspaper of the Little Rock diocese.]