Same sex marriages – 6
Contains 3 postings, updated November 17, 2014
1. Talisman, January 5 2011
The National Spiritual Assembly of the Bahais in the United States has released a letter which quotes from new guidance from the Universal House of Justice, dated October 27, 2010. This indicates that Baha’is should eschew all forms of prejudice defend those whose fundamental rights are being denied, but should in their own lives apply the teachings of Baha’u’llah on personal morality (teachings which they do not seek to impose on others). In working for social justice, Baha’is can actively support freedom from discrimination, while neither promoting nor opposing opportunities for civil marriage. The full text of the letter follows.
National Spiritual Assembly of the Baha’is of the United States
January 3, 
To the American Baha’i community
Dearest Baha’i Friends,
The National Spiritual Assembly understands that homosexuality is a
subject of particular interest and concern to many in this country
and is, therefore, moved to share with you a letter dated October 27,
2010, written on behalf of the Universal House of Justice on this topic. A copy of the letter-addressed to an American Baha’i-was received by our Assembly, and the Supreme Body has kindly granted us permission to share it with you:
…With respect to your question concerning the position Baha’is are to take regarding homosexuality and civil rights, we have been asked to convey the following.
The purpose of the Faith of Baha’u’llah is the realization of the organic unity of the entire human race, and Baha’is are enjoined to eliminate from their lives all forms of prejudice and to manifest respect towards all. Therefore, to regard those with a homosexual orientation with prejudice or disdain would be against the spirit of the Faith. Furthermore, a Baha’i is exhorted to be “an upholder and defender of the victim of oppression”, and it would be entirely appropriate for a believer to come to the defense of those whose fundamental rights are being denied or violated.
At the same time, you are no doubt aware of the relevant teachings of the Faith that govern the personal conduct of Baha’is. The Baha’i Writings state that marriage is a union between a man and a woman and that sexual relations are restricted to a couple who are married to each other. Other passages from the Writings state that the practice of homosexuality is not permitted. The teachings of Baha’u’llah on personal morality are binding on Baha’is, who strive, as best they can, to live up to the high standards He has established.
In attempting to reconcile what may appear to be conflicting obligations, it is important to understand that the Baha’i community does not seek to impose its values on others, nor does it pass judgment on others on the basis of its own moral standards. It does not see itself as one among competing social groups and organizations, each vying to establish its particular social agenda. In working for social justice, Baha’is must inevitably distinguish between those dimensions of public issues that are in keeping with the Baha’i Teachings, which they can actively support, and those that are not, which they would neither promote nor necessarily oppose. In connection with issues of concern to homosexuals, the former would be freedom from discrimination and the latter the opportunity for civil marriage. Such distinctions are unavoidable when addressing any social issue. For example, Baha’is actively work for the establishment of world peace but, in the process, do not engage in partisan political activities directed against particular governments.
We felt it important that the friends have access to this guidance
from the House of Justice, and trust that you will find it helpful.
With loving Baha’i greetings,
Kenneth E. Bowers
— end of letter —
The denial of a civil marriage or an equivalent to homosexuals is discrimination, and should be opposed by Bahais. We are “..exhorted to be “an upholder and defender of the victim of oppression.”
The new policy tells us that we — and Bahai spokespeople and Assembly statements — can say that “the Bahai position” is to support moves to abolish state discrimination against homosexuals. We cannot say that the Bahai community as such takes a position on the
legislation involved in a particular state, or the terms used (marriage, civil union), and other details worked out in the political arena.
Individual Bahais, as citizens of democratic countries, can support a particular proposal, or vote for a party that does. But Bahai institutions cannot do this, and we cannot say “the Bahai community (or Bahai teachings) support the repeal of proposition X.” And we can’t use institutional resources to campaign for a particular proposition. If we did, we would be as bad as the Mormon Church in Californian politics. The separation of church and state requires a restraint on the side of the religious institution, as well as from the state.
The question that will arise, as more and more states end discrimination against homosexuals, is how Bahai assemblies are to respond to same-sex couples. I take it as a given, that Bahai *communities* will be welcoming. The question I’m addressing here is how this will be dealt with administratively, by assemblies, given that this letter also says “The Baha’i Writings state that marriage is a union between a man and a woman and that sexual relations are restricted to a couple who are married to each other. Other passages from the Writings state that the practice of homosexuality is not permitted.” (I leave aside the lack of sources for these claims – for whether scriptural or not, what the UHJ decides is policy for the Bahai community.)
Marriage is in the first place an institution of society. Being married, or not, affects our social status and rights, as well as our position vis-a-vis our various cultural networks and religious communities. For a state to deny marriage to some adult citizens is discriminatory. For a religion or cultural group or family to deny that social recognition to some of its members – except at the price of divorcing themselves from part of their individual identity by leaving – is an injustice.
On the other hand, while all states should be compelled to grant equal rights to all their citizens, states should not seek to compel religious communities to provide marriage services (except where the provision of marriages is one of the duties of a religious establishment – as in Israel for example). Such an intrusion of state power into the cultural and family sphere would, in the end, violate the sanctity of conscience. So if Bahai assemblies or certain churches feel they cannot in good conscience supervise a same-sex wedding, they must be free to refuse – and to bear the opprobrium that follows.
A second question is whether the Bahai teachings oblige Bahai Assemblies to recognize the authority of the state to formalize marriages, and therefore oblige the Assemblies to recognize same-sex marriages recognized by the state? The Bahai teachings do explicitly recognize the legitimacy (in religious language, the divine mandate) of the state, to act in a variety of spheres, and they say that disobedience to the government is disobedience to God. Yet there are some instances in which Bahais have a duty of disobedience to the government, for example where a government is engaged in genocide, or is forcing conversion to its state religion, or requiring adherence to its party and state ideology. In extremis then, the individual conscience trumps the authority of the government. Unless a core issue of conscience is involved, Bahais and Bahai institutions are obliged by Bahai teachings to be supporters and constructive partners of the government.
The question then is, is the denial of recognition to same-sex marriages such a core issue of conscience for Bahais, that our Assemblies are obliged to lay aside a government-recognized marriage, and treat the relationship as an immoral one? I reason that it is not such a core issue, first because of the precedent of Bahai Assemblies recognizing socially-recognized or legally registered polygamous marriages, and second because, where a state has declared the Bahai Administration illegal, it has been disbanded. Since the election of Houses of Justice (Assemblies) is set out in the Aqdas and other Bahai scripture, while the question of same-sex marriages is not covered in Bahai scripture (it did not exist then), it would be inconsistent to say that we obey the government when it tells us to stop electing our Assemblies, but defy it when it decides that a same-sex couple is legally and socially married.
The Bahai writings do not, so far as I know, stipulate that the recognition of marriages is a state responsibility. They suppose that the Bahai Assemblies will determine the details of who may marry whom (the ‘forbidden degrees of marriage) for the Bahai community (see ‘Abdu’l-Baha on religious law and the House of Justice‘ on my blog). On the other hand, they do not say that the recognition of marriages is a purely religious affair, in which the state should not intervene. So the Bahai teachings on church-state separation do not, I think, give grounds for saying that Assemblies must defy the government on the same-sex marriage issue.
Supposing that, as indicated above, Assemblies cannot treat a marriage recognized by the state as an immoral relationship, the next issue is whether those in same-sex marriages can serve on Assemblies. In one case some decades ago, a man in a long-term same-sex relationship was elected to an NSA, and his election was overturned by the Universal House
of Justice. Supposing that the relationship concerned had been a state-recognized marriage, and that the NSA concerned paid an honorarium to its members, would this amount to employment discrimination?
First, it must be said that a paid and elected position is an unusual form of employment. If your sheriff is elected, he or she has less job security than the police officers; the congressman’s secretary has (or should have)better work conditions than the congressman – not just security, but also a right to statutory holidays, overtime etc.. Members of the Board in a corporation can be voted out by any annual or special general meeting of the shareholders. In short, employment protection is weak, when the voters are your employers.
Despite this, I think that the case I mentioned was discrimination, since the man was elected and was denied a seat. [This distinguishes it from a case such as the Catholic Church refusing to anoint women to the priesthood.] Such a thing would be against the law in the Netherlands. For example, a conservative religious party here denied women the right to stand for election, and was compelled to change that by the high court. A more mainstream party has been compelled to accept openly (married or living-together) homosexual candidates. In the UK, the BNP has been compelled to allow coloured members and candidates, by the courts. In these countries, to annul the election of an NSA or LSA member because of their sexual orientation or marital arrangement would be likely to run against the law. More and more countries are banning discrimination based on sexual orientation, so the issue will arise again. What makes this particularly pregnant for the Bahais, is that we have no candidates for election, except for the list of Bahais with voting rights, so depriving someone of their voting rights for a marital arrangement recognized by the state might possibly be seen as equivalent to the cases I mentioned above.
In the end, there may be no option for the Bahai community, but to put marriage in the same category as fasting and daily prayers – there are Bahai laws on the topic, but the body responsible for overseeing the laws, is the individual concerned and no-one else. This is currently the case with abortion: “it is left to the consciences of those concerned.” (On behalf of the Universal House of Justice to the National Spiritual Assembly of Ireland, March 16, 1983).
But to return to the UHJ’s letter. It says, “a Baha’i is exhorted to be “an upholder and defender of the victim of oppression”, and it would be entirely appropriate for a believer to come to the defense of those whose fundamental rights are being denied or violated.” The right to equal treatment by the state is, I think, a fundamental right, so the Bahai community can be expected to support and initiate moves to abolish state discrimination against homosexuals (without underwriting any party or legislative proposal). But if we adopt a world-embracing perspective on this, community energies and resources must go primarily to places where homophobic social attitudes place the lives of homosexuals in danger (eg Uganda), because that is the more urgent case and also because the Bahai community by its nature is better equipped to counteracting prejudices, than to supporting complex legislative proposals. Countries such as Iran, where homosexuals are executed, are a different case, since such governments are impervious to outside pressure, and the Bahais have zero leverage. Perhaps all that can be done is to support individual asylum applications and refugees, and lobby governments to accept homosexual orientation as reasonable grounds for fearing persecution, for applicants from these countries. In Egypt too, the law not only does not permit marriage between people of the same sex, it does not permit marriage between two Bahais, or between a Bahai and a Muslim — the Egyptian state in short discriminates in a wide range of ways, and here too the defense of those whose fundamental right to equal treatment are being denied or violated is a religious duty for Bahais.
Another question that arises is whether the principle of non-discrimination obliges states to recognize polygamous marriages. Does the logic for the recognition of gay marriages lead eventually to a duty to recognize polygamy? I reason that it does not, although the niceties of inter-state relationships make it advisable for states to recognize marriages of any sort that have been legally made in another country.
I think that a state is not practicing discrimination when it denies registration for polygamous marriages, first, because state recognition of a marriage entails some obligations for the state – for example pension rights, immigration issues etc.. The state naturally wants to limit how many people it is obliged to in these ways, and ‘one’ is the logical place to stop. If not there, where? So the state is not arbitrarily discriminating between its citizens, it is acting in accordance with reasonable and rational state interests.
Second, why does the state take on this obligation to even one spouse? Because it recognizes that humans are by nature not just social animals, but family animals. This is one reason why gay marriage is a human right – because a long-term committed relationship offers the possibility for full human development. It’s analogous to the argument that access to primary education is a human right. However one long-term committed relationship satisfies this human rights argument, the second through to the 75th don’t seem to add much.
Another analogy to this argument relates to state funding for fertility treatment, and for adoption agencies: parenthood too is part of our human nature, which may not be achieved by all, but should also not be lightly denied to anyone seeking it.
A third and weaker argument for the state supporting marriages, but not polygamy, is the state’s duty of care for the weakest, including children. This justifies state policies to support family life (such as state recognition of marriage) and state intervention in families (removing abused children). Poly-gamy (one man, several women) in its usual form of parallel households dilutes the contribution of the father to childrearing. It *tends* to be sub-optimal as a childrearing mechanism. But I would hasten to add that that does not mean that every polygamous family is disfunctional! Often the children of the first household are already leaving the nest, by the time the man starts his second.
Despite all the further questions that will in time arise for the Bahai community, as same-sex marriages are more widely recognized, the new guidance on same-sex marriages from the UHJ is a substantial step forward. It tells us, for the first time that I know of, that our individual and collective work for social justice includes homosexuals as a potential discriminated group.
2. Postscript: January 6
I have just become aware of two more letters from the Universal House of Justice that give guidance for the situation in which a person who is already in a same-sex union seeks to join the Bahai community. They show a positive change in understanding, in my view. The first is from 1990:
As you know, Baha’u’llah has clearly forbidden the expression of sexual love between individuals of the same sex. However, the doors are open for all of humanity to enter the Cause of God, irrespective of their present circumstance; this invitation applies to homosexuals as well as to any others who are engaged in practices contrary to the Baha’i teachings. Associated with this invitation is the expectation that all believers will make a sincere and persistent effort to eradicate those aspects of their conduct which are not in conformity with Divine Law. (on behalf of the Universal House of Justice to an individual, 3 July 1990)
The implication of this is that such people would eventually be expected to divorce their partner, which to me at least is a shocking suggestion, and one that runs contrary to a 1978 policy that those in “immoral” relationships should not be encouraged to separate or have a Bahai weddning ceremony, but should be encouraged to have a civil marriage:
The problem becomes much more subtle when it concerns people who are living in an immoral relationship when they accept the Faith. It may be that such a relationship, although immoral, is of long standing. Because of the current attitudes in society a couple may have settled down as man and wife without getting married but with the intention of making a home together, and may even have had children. In such a case, where the situation, although immoral, is settled and accepted, the Assembly should not attempt to go back into the past and undo a union that was cemented before the couple became Baha’is, but should accept their condition as being a marriage in the eyes of Baha’i law. To compel them to separate, or to celebrate a Baha’i ceremony at such a late date could cause serious injustice; it might well be impossible for the couple, for example, to obtain parental consent, and a united, happy family could thus be disrupted—the very opposite of the intention of the law. When a situation is thus recognised as a marriage in the eyes of Baha’i law the question of having a Baha’i marriage does not arise. If, however, the couple are able to regularise the situation in the eyes of the civil law by having a civil ceremony, they should be encouraged to do so for the sake of the good name of the Faith.
Written on behalf of the Universal House of Justice to a National Spiritual Assembly, March 5, 1978
In 1999 the policy is that institutions should not tell those in homosexual relationships to separate, as such an instruction might be against the law (and a united, happy family could be disrupted):
…. particular, if persons involved in homosexual relationships express an interest in the Faith, they should not be instructed by Baha’i institutions to separate so that they may enrol in the Baha’i community, for this action by any institution may conflict with civil law. The Baha’i position should be patiently explained to such persons, who should also be given to understand that although in their hearts they may accept Baha’u’llah, they cannot join the Baha’i community in the current condition of their relationship. They will then be free to draw their own conclusions and act accordingly. Within this context, the question you pose about the possibility of the removal of administrative rights should, therefore, not arise.
(From a letter written on behalf of the Universal House of Justice to an individual 5 March 1999)
A clarification of this, from the Universal House of Justice’s secretariat, shows that the same exclusion applies to those who are in same-sex marriages:
In your email dated 14 March 1999, you ask whether a homosexual who is in a committed same sex relationship, or who is involved in a same sex marriage, may be permitted to stay in such a relationship upon becoming a Baha’i. The answer, as indicated in our previous letter to you of 5 March 1999, is that such persons cannot be accepted as members of the Baha’i community while maintaining such a relationship. However, if individuals involved in a homosexual relationship have a desire to become Baha’i, they should be patiently and lovingly informed of the position of the Faith on homosexuality, but they should not be instructed by Baha’i teachers or by Baha’i institutions to separate in order to become Baha’i; rather, they should be left free to decide for themselves whether or not they wish to change their way of life and apply for Baha’i membership. In other words: armed with knowledge of the Baha’i position as explained to them, they can exercise their own judgment as to what to chose to do. This is the meaning of our previous statement that, ‘They will be free to draw their own conclusions and act accordingly.’
“It is only proper that the response of the Bahá’ís to such persons should be as described here: on the one hand, the law of the Faith must be upheld; on the other, our community must be open to those who choose to abide by that law. By affirming through word and deed their determination to follow the way of Baha’u’llah, they must unhesitatingly be accorded the privileges of Baha’i membership. The same approach applies with regard to those persons who wish to join the Faith but are known to have a problem with drinking, drug abuse, adultery, etc.” (From a letter written on behalf of the Universal House of Justice to an individual 13 April 1999 in response to a request for clarification about the letter dated 5 March 1999)
It is sad to see that people in same sex marriages are treated as analogous to those with drinking and drug problems or adulterers. But we are now 15 years further and the recognition of homosexual marriages is spreading country by country. The question of whether the denial of recognition to same-sex marriages such a core issue of conscience for Bahais, that our Assemblies are obliged to lay aside a government-recognized marriage, and treat the relationship as an immoral one, becomes more pressing by the day.
The positive aspects are that homosexuals are not to be advised to separate, which implies also that ‘curing’ homosexuality through therapies is no longer to be advised by the Bahai institutions. Another change, which I regard as positive, is that it recognizes that people may be Bahais in their hearts, without being enrolled. If this is accompanied by its logical corollary, a recognition in the Bahai community, that that community includes people who for one reason or another are not enrolled, it can be both inclusive for the “close associates” of the Faith, and can help the enrolled members to de-emphasize enrollment and administration, and put the focus back on Baha’u’llah, his teachings, and living them in our lives. Enrollment is down-graded, from the magic moment that creates a Bahai identity, to an administrative procedure relating to voting lists. It is one necessary but not central part of Bahai life, and not necessarily an indicator of what is in our hearts.
3. Talisman, January 8
In response to RR:
> > For example, when Shoghi Effendi states that
> > homosexuality is “immoral” he is referring to the civil statues
> > which (in his time) made homosexuality illegal …
> Civil law does not inform morality. … Shoghi Effendi … was well
> aware of the categorical difference between civil law and moral code.
While I agree with the distinction in general, the first question is,
where does Shoghi Effendi state that homosexuality is immoral? I think we
will find that “immoral” is used in two ways, and one of them relates to
accepted social mores rather than the Bahai teachings.
Here’s what I’ve found, from letters on behalf of Shoghi Effendi:
. . .Baha’u’llah has spoken very strongly against this shameful
sexual aberration, as He has against adultery and immoral conduct in
general. We must try and help the soul to overcome them. (25 October
No matter how devoted and fine the love may be between people of the
same sex, to let it find expression in sexual acts is wrong. To say
that it is ideal is no excuse. Immorality of every sort is really
forbidden by Bahá’u’lláh, and homosexual relationships He looks upon
as such, besides being against nature. (26 March 1950)
In the above, homosexuality is classified under immoral conduct,
based on religious teachings.
Homosexuality … seek to overcome this handicap. But, unless the
actions of such individuals are flagrantly immoral, it cannot be a
pretext for depriving them of their voting rights. (October 6 1956)
Here, “immoral” is defined by what is publicly seen. Incidentally, the
full text and circumstances of this letter are published in The Babi
Question by Jelle de Vries, and I add them below as a postscript.
The question RR raises is valid, albeit that it is not only civil laws
but also social attitudes that define what is immoral in the second sense.
The UHJ has written:
“… the Faith accepts in certain cases unions which are immoral
[i.e., in the first sense above – S] but accepted by the society in
which the people live. In all these cases, because the union is
accepted by the Faith, there is no question of a couple’s having a
Baha’i wedding ceremony subsequently because, as the Guardian says,
‘Baha’i marriage is something you perform when you are going to be
united for the first time, not long after the union takes place’. If,
however, such a couple would like to have a meeting of their friends at
which Baha’i prayers and readings are said on behalf of their marriage now
that they are Baha’is, there is no objection to their doing so, although
it must be understood that this does not constitute a Baha’i marriage
ceremony. (to the National Spiritual Assembly of Peru, June 23, 1969)
That suggests to me a way of regularizing existing gay marriages and
socially accepted gay partnerships, where those individuals or couples
enter the Bahai community. Assemblies asked to supervise or register such
marriages can simply refer the person to this letter.
Jelle de Vries, The Babi Question you mentioned (2002), page 259:.
Before their enrolment in 1954 Mr. A. and Mr. B. Had made no secret of
their homosexual relationship – they had in fact told their fellow
believers of it – and still the Spiritual Assembly of the Hague as well as
the European Teaching Committee had accepted them. But when a year later
both were elected into the Spiritual Assembly they could not escape the
inevitable clash of personalities. And as a ‘struggle for power’ arose
they soon were blamed for their way of life. [Source, Van Lith and
Sijsling to Regional Spiritual Assembly, 13 Oct 1957]
Matters escalated and the assembly became divided on the issue. Both A.
and B. pleaded their case with the European Teaching Committee and the
Guardian, as did Jane Boekhoudt, one of their supporters. She received the
Your letter of September 4th  has been received by the beloved
Guardian, and he has instructed me to answer you on his behalf.
Homosexuality is highly condemned and often a great trial and cause of
suffering to a person, as a Baha’i. Any individual so afflicted must,
through prayer, and any other means, seek to overcome this handicap. But,
unless the actions of such individuals are flagrantly immoral, it cannot
be a pretext for depriving them of their voting rights.
They young believers in question must adhere to their Faith, and not
withdraw from active service, because of the tests they experience. In one
way or another we are all tested; and this must strengthen us, not weaken
us. The Guardian will pray for these two young believers, and also for you
and for the situation there.
With warm Baha’i greetings, R. Rabbani. [dd. October 6, 1956]
At the end of 1956, B. had left the faith, while A. had his voting rights
withdrawn. Some member could not accept this situation and openly sided
with A. Disunity paralysed the assembly. … [page 260]
In the following months seven of the believers felt it necessary to retire
from Baha’i activity, and by September 1957 the Spiritual Assembly of The
Hague could no longer function. [Hollibaugh to RSA, 17 Sept 1957]
That same month the Benelux [Regional] Assembly sent its members Jan
Sijsling and Bob van Lith to The Hague to investigate the matter. After
meeting several local Baha’is individually they reported to the Regional
Spiritual Assembly that ‘the main reasons’ for the problems were ‘personal
ambition, neglecting the Baha’i rules for working and living together,
[and] authority-problems between pioneer and spiritual assembly.’ As a
result the community had split up in three factions, one around Fippie van
Duyne, another around A. and a third ‘more or less neutral’ group. In
order to rebuild ‘a Baha’i community, which would observe the Baha’i
rules’ Sijsling and Van Lith offered to attend the 19-day feasts and
assembly meeting of The Hague. [ Van Lith and Sijsling to RSA, 13 Oct
With this external help, which was continued well into 1958, the Spiritual
Assembly continued to function. …. It was especially after A. had
expressed his intention ‘not to act as a party once he would be accepted
again into the Faith,’ and ‘to purify his sexual behaviour,’ thereby
enabling the Regional Spiritual Assembly to restore his voting rights in
March 1958, that the community recovered. A month later the new local
Spiritual Assembly elected A. as its chairman. [Minutes, 8 March 1958] And
when B. who had withdrawn from the faith desired to become a Baha’i again,
unity seemed to be restored.
One wonders why the subject of homosexuality received so much attention
and even resulted in the suspension of voting rights [when other matters
such as membership of freemasonry did not attract sanctions…]
The answer consists of at least three components. First the emphasis is
only apparently so, for it did not result from the taboo on homosexuality
as such, but rather from the impact the matter had on the Hague community.
Secondly, [the two Bahais who were Freemasons] did not draw attention …
A. and B. on the other hand lived in the same house, and were clearly
recognizable to the outside world as a gay couple. Yet, these
circumstances can only partly serve as an explanation. There were, after
all, other homosexual Bahais at that time who never lost their voting
rights. The third and breaking point was that A. and B. defended their
lifestyle, tried to win over others to their position, and thereby
threatened to cause a split within the community. [Sijsling to De Vries,
interview 13 May 1999] In such a situation the Regional Spiritual Assembly
could not remain silent, and it therefore eventually had to withdraw their
voting rights. Referring to the standard set by the Guardian – ‘unless the
actions of such individuals are flagrantly immoral, it cannot be a pretext
for depriving them of their voting rights’ – Sijsling (later) somewhat
clarified that conclusion by stressing that in general the only criterion
for suspending voting rights had been whether or not certain immoral
behaviour was ‘flagrant’ or not. [Sijsling to De Vries, letter 7 Dec 1999]
In other words whether or not it was a very obvious expression of
disrespect for Baha’i law. Had these two believers admitted their
weakness in the face of the Baha’i moral standard, refrained from
openly expressing their preference, and not acted as a party it would
probably never have come to this sanction.
– end of quote –
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