The U.S. Supreme Court’s decision on the Defense of Marriage Act and California’s Proposition 8, which limited marriage to a man and a woman, will hardly represent the last word on the question.
As more state legislatures consider extending marriage to gays and lesbians, opponents of such laws say the next step will be to force churches to recognize the unions and perhaps even perform gay wedding ceremonies. But supporters say the First Amendment would ensure that churches were never forced to perform marriages for gay couples.
Will gay marriage undermine the freedom of religious people to recognize only traditional marriage? Can an expansive definition of marriage and the First Amendment coexist? Ben Boychuk and Joel Mathis, the Red-Blue America columnists, weigh in.
BEN BOYCHUK : No, the First Amendment and same-sex marriage cannot coexist harmoniously. Something will have to give — and it will start with the freedom of conscience.
Here’s why: If the law says there can be no “rational basis” for treating the union between a man and a woman as something unique — if a union between any two (or, perhaps someday, more) consenting adults is a “marriage” — then it really doesn’t matter what your conscience tells you.
We don’t prosecute people for holding unpopular beliefs — yet — but the authorities do look askance at discrimination. That’s why we hear so much lately about caterers, photographers and florists running afoul of several states’ civil rights laws for refusing to do business with gay couples.
True, those aren’t churches. But states such as New Jersey and Vermont have already sanctioned church-affiliated organizations for refusing to host same-sex weddings or receptions at their facilities.
Freedom of association is also in jeopardy. California’s state senate last month voted to strip the Boy Scouts of America of its tax-exempt status because the organization won’t allow homosexual leaders. The BSA isn’t a religious group, either, though in recent years churches have been the primary sponsors of scout troops.
California’s Democrats don’t care about the Boy Scouts’ First Amendment right to define their membership. And they don’t have particularly high regard for the role the organization plays in shaping boys into responsible adults and good citizens.
The Scouts simply don’t conform to the Democrats’ way of thinking, and so they must be punished. Does anyone seriously think churches won’t be punished, too? It’s only a matter of time before what we understand as “freedom of religion” is whittled down to little more than the freedom to worship whatever deity you choose in a special building one day out of the week.
But to actually apply your religious beliefs to the way you live or do business the other six days? Expect no sympathy from the law when it comes to same-sex unions. Such is the price of “equality.”
JOEL MATHIS : Liberty is not zero-sum: Me having more doesn’t mean you have less. So it’s sad for anti-marriage conservatives that their cramped-yet-overactive imaginations lead them to panic about the freedoms they’ll lose just because Adam and Steve are finally free to tie the knot.
It doesn’t work that way in this country. There’s more than 200 years of the government precedent generally — but not always, admittedly — deferring to people’s religious beliefs, and letting them apply those beliefs in extreme circumstances.
Put it this way: In 2011 the Supreme Court said that Fred Phelps’ Westboro Baptist Church could conduct its ugly anti-gay protests at the funerals of combat veterans.
Put it this way: Scientology is tax exempt.
Put it this way: Across the country, pharmacists very often use “conscience clauses” to refuse to dispense birth control to young women who wish to obtain it entirely legally. And within the last year, the entire federal government has bent over backward — among other contortions — to ensure that young women who work for Catholic charities can access birth control without requiring the church to pay for it.
The list can go on, but you get the idea: We Americans work really hard — both in society and government — to allow people to work and live according to the dictates of their conscience, even if it’s a pain for everybody else. That’s not going to change simply because gay marriage is ascendant. Will it take a couple of years and a few lawsuits to suss that out? Probably. It was ever thus in this country.
Gay marriage follows a long, beloved tradition in this country: Extending the freedom to enjoy life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, to ever more people.
America has followed that path for more than two centuries without stepping on the freedoms of people who came before.
This time will be no different. The sky is not falling.
Reach Ben Boychuk at email@example.com; Joel Mathis firstname.lastname@example.org.