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.