Opinion / Editorial
So the Supreme Court has handed down its ruling that getting married is a fundamental right that states can’t deny to any two people who wish to say “I Do” to each other. As a result, June 26, 2015 was a cause for celebration for many people, but a cause for despair for many others.
One of the most common ideas expressed by those disappointed in the ruling was their concern about what it meant for religious freedom: Could people of faith who believe that homosexuality is sinful be punished for discussing their beliefs? I want to address that concern, but in doing so I will also talk about a couple of other issues surrounding religious liberty and marriage.
First off, what is religious liberty and why is it important? Simply put, it’s the freedom of each person to live the way they believe God requires them to live. This has been a huge deal ever since Europeans first started settling the East Coast, because many of the earliest settlers came to the colonies because they were being persecuted for their faith back home in Europe. They hoped that coming to America would provide a fresh start, where they could practice their religion without fear of government oppression.
But today many people of faith feel like they are under siege because their beliefs do not necessarily line up with what is considered “politically correct.” And you might have heard that there are a lot of people out there who are very, very serious about (1) making sure others have the “right” perspectives on various issues, and (2) making life hard on those who have differing opinions. As a result, many who believe that God opposes homosexuality are worried that they might lose their jobs, or be accused of hate crimes, or that their churches might lose their tax exempt status – simply for being honest about what they believe.
It’s understandable for them to have that concern – but here is why I don’t think their concerns will come to pass. The very same Constitution that the Supreme Court just relied on to rule that governments can’t treat people differently just because they’re gay also says the government can’t treat people differently just because their beliefs are not shared by most other people, it can’t punish people for sharing their thoughts and opinions with others, and it can’t force churches to act in ways that contradict their religious beliefs.
There have been a couple of recent examples that I hope will show why I think that the same-sex marriage case are not dangerous for religious liberty.
One of the important cases the Supreme Court decided last year dealt with Christian business owners who sincerely believe that life begins at conception and that, therefore, certain types of contraception end life. A federal law required these business owners to pay for their employees to have access to these types of contraception, but the owners said that paying for it would violate their religion. The Court ended up deciding that the government could not impose that requirement.
In 2012, the Supreme Court dealt with a case where a Christian church had decided to dismiss a minister for reasons that might have violated a federal anti-discrimination law. The church responded that the government must not be able to interfere with a church’s decisions about who will serve in positions of religious leadership. The Supreme Court ruled unanimously in favor of the church.
So the most recent cases show that a majority of justices on the Supreme Court understand the importance of religious liberty and are willing to protect it. This suggests that it is unlikely that the Court would require a church to, say, host or perform wedding services that the church believes to contradict God’s will.
This actually brings up an entirely different way that the gay marriage decision impacts religious liberty. Until the Supreme Court’s ruling, many states made it a criminal offense for religious leaders to preside over a wedding ceremony if state law did not allow the couple to be married. Although many may not realize it, there are a lot of religious leaders who not only believe that God will bless same-sex marriages – they feel that God has called on them to convey that divine blessing by presiding over the weddings of same-sex couples. That means that the laws prohibiting same-sex marriage were actually restricting religious liberty in addition to the right to marry, but now these priests, pastors, and rabbis will be free not only to perform same-sex weddings, but also to have the weddings they perform granted the same legal status as the weddings performed by other religious leaders.
There is one more way in which the Supreme Court decision might ultimately impact religious freedom. As many people have noted, if states cannot prohibit gay and lesbian couples from marrying each other, what might that mean for other restrictions that states have put on marriage? In particular, what if more than two people wish to be part of a marriage?
This was actually one of the first questions the Supreme Court ever addressed in the area of religious liberty. Not long after the Civil War, a Mormon family was accused of violating laws that prohibited plural marriage. The family responded that they believed God requires people to participate in plural marriages, and failing to do so would violate their religious beliefs. At that time, the Supreme Court ruled that the Constitution did not protect the right to marry more than one person, even if someone believed that was what God demanded. But now that the Supreme Court has imposed more limits on the ways in which states can restrict the right to marry, the question becomes whether the freedom to marry, combined with the importance of religious liberty, might be important enough for the Court to change its mind on plural marriage.