Gay marriage and religious freedom

This past week a letter signed by a wide swath of high-ranking American religious leaders was released.  It was entitled “Marriage and Religious Freedom: Fundamental Goods that Stand or Fall Together.”  See the full letter hosted by the US Conference of Catholic Bishops.

Conservative religious groups opposing gay marriage is hardly news.  However, the slant taken by the religious groups caught my eye.  Rather than argue against gay marriage on moral grounds, they make claims of the loss of religious freedom in a variety of areas.

…[W]e believe the most urgent peril is this: forcing or pressuring both individuals and religious organizations—throughout their operations, well beyond religious ceremonies—to treat same-sex sexual conduct as the moral equivalent of marital sexual conduct. There is no doubt that the many people and groups whose moral and religious convictions forbid same-sex sexual conduct will resist the compulsion of the law, and church-state conflicts will result.

As examples they cite the following types of practical concerns:

So, for example, religious adoption services that place children exclusively with married couples would be required by law to place children with persons of the same sex who are civilly “married.” Religious marriage counselors would be denied their professional accreditation for refusing to provide counseling in support of same-sex “married” relationships. Religious employers who provide special health benefits to married employees would be required by law to extend those benefits to same-sex “spouses.” Religious employers would also face lawsuits for taking any adverse employment action—no matter how modest—against an employee for the public act of obtaining a civil “marriage” with a member of the same sex. This is not idle speculation, as these sorts of situations have already come to pass.

And they go on to site specific examples going beyond the simple hypothetical:

For example, in New Jersey, the state cancelled the tax-exempt status of a Methodist-run boardwalk pavilion used for religious services because the religious organization would not host a same-sex “wedding” there. San Francisco dropped its $3.5 million in social service contracts with the Salvation Army because it refused to recognize same-sex “domestic partnerships” in its employee benefits policies. Similarly, Portland, Maine, required Catholic Charities to extend spousal employee benefits to same-sex “domestic partners” as a condition of receiving city housing and community development funds.

Many libertarians argue that 1) government shouldn’t be in the marriage business in the first place and 2) that the examples cited by the religious leaders involve religious groups using public funds in a way that exceeds the appropriate scope of government (community development, for instance) regardless of who is receiving the funds — whether religious or non-religious groups.

I would largely agree with the second claim but, as I’ve argued before, the first one is exceedingly naive, especially as a practical political manner.  Marriage is ingrained in thousands of statues touching virtually every aspect of our lives and thousands of years of human history.   Governments, as a matter of law, can and should be indifferent to a lot of human practices and institutions, but that doesn’t mean it should have blinders on.  Socially and culturally, the marriage relationship is as foundational to the order and functioning of society as the parent-child relationship.  A full consideration of the consequences of re-defining marriage is far more complicated than the “love has no boundaries” crowd wants to admit.

Though I don’t think the whole fabric of religious liberty is being undermined by gay marriage, I do believe there are legitimate threats to believers and religious groups from the gay political agenda.  Religious groups have long played, for instance, a central role in the case of adoptions, where they have traditionally provided low-cost or free services to both expectant mothers and adoptive parents.  It is hard not to see religious groups being pushed out of these sorts of activities as the gay marriage movement advances.  And, despite the recent Court ruling granting a “ministerial exception” to anti-discrimination law, it is hard not to see churches being subject to “the full arsenal of government punishments and pressures reserved for racists,” as the religious leaders are worried about.

6 thoughts on “Gay marriage and religious freedom

  1. And yet Scotus just voted 9-0 in favor of upholding religious exemptions for religious organizations. I agree this is something religions should be concerned about — and think supporters of gay marriage (such as myself) should care about it, too, if we truly are tolerantly liberal and not totalitarian in our political convictions. But doesn’t that ruling show that there isn’t that much to be concerned with?

  2. I don’t have much sympathy for an argument that basically boils down to “we want to be able to exclude people from our group, but we also want the government to support us.” It’s fine to oppose gay marriage from a ideological or religious perspective, but you can’t then demand that the government (or anyone else) support your point of view.

    Government money is taxpayer money, our money. And we get to decide, collectively, how that money is spent. A church has no more right than any other group to demand taxpayer dollars. The Salvation Army doesn’t have “the right” to receive a government contract. The City of San Francisco should be free to contract with whomever they want to, right? How does that threaten religious liberty in any way?

    1. You make a good point there, Philip, but then I’m not sure about this:

      The City of San Francisco should be free to contract with whomever they want to, right?

      After all, what if the city said they were only going to contract with white-owned businesses? That would be clearly illegal and rightfully so. By refusing to contract with groups that refuse to work with gay couples, the city is taking a moral stance – it’s taking a stance in favor of the view that gay couples are just as legitimate families as straight couples. That may or may not be the right stance, but my point is simply that once government gets involved in doling out these dollars, it inevitably takes a stand on controversial lifestyle issues one way or another. The only way for government to remain neutral among competing conceptions of the good is not be involved in family life in the first place (and I’m not sure that’s wholly possible given that even libertarians concede a role for the state in protecting children from abusive or neglectful adults).

    2. A church has “no more right than any other group to demand taxpayer dollars.” That may be, but doesn’t that mean they have no less of a right, too?

      Governments contract with private organizations all the time. How much should government be allowed to make moral judgments about the groups they contract with, especially in cases where the moral stand in question is very unrelated to the service being provided?

      Helping the community and serving the poor are seen by most churches as a fundamental part of their mission. And the issue could go easily go beyond spending taxpayer money. It can also involve professional counseling services (which often involve religious faith as a central component of the counseling) or adoption (where the service is provided, in part, to place infants with people of a particular faith). I think restrictions on these types of activities are a legitimate fear.

      1. “How much should government be allowed to make moral judgments about the groups they contract with?”

        Couldn’t some groups see the government giving taxpayer dollars to a group that doesn’t acknowledge gay marriage as making a moral judgment as well? Why should the anti-gay marriage groups get their point of view validated by the government? I personally don’t believe that to be the case, but you can see how some people might view it that way.

        As to the point of churches and other religious organizations providing services, if they want to do it, they should be allowed to go about it however they like as long as they aren’t causing any harm. The state should have little to no say in how a private organization chooses to conduct its business. However, if that group wants to receive state support, shouldn’t they have to conform to the norms that society has decided upon?

        I will grant that a church being sued for refusing to, say, give housing assistance to a gay couple would be ridiculous, and no legislation should force a private individual or group to provide services to specific people. However, if the money for that housing assistance comes from the state, then the state is well within its rights to put conditions on how that money is used.

        If religious groups want to maintain the religious definition of marriage, let them. But in our society marriage is not simply a religious issue. It is also a legal and financial arrangement created and maintained by the state, and the state cannot, in my opinion, support one view of this legal and financial arrangement over another. If a religious group does believe that gay marriage is legitimate, but the state does not, doesn’t that threaten their religious freedom?

  3. Both sides, advocates of marriage equality and advocates of religious freedom, each have merit. No baker should be forced to bake a cake for a same-sex weddings if their religious beliefs demand it. Churches also should not face reprisal if they elect not to perform a marriage ceremony for same-sex couples.

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