Same-Sex Marriage and Religious Freedom: What’s the Connection?

Last month’s elections marked an undeniable and historic turning point among the American electorate. For the first time, same-sex marriage ballot proposals were victorious in three states- Maine, Maryland, and Washington state- where the voters elected to legalize marriage between same-sex couples. This election season also marked the first time a state electorate rebuffed a measure to define marriage as between a man and a woman in Minnesota.

These electoral developments across the country demonstrate a clear shift in the American consciousness towards supporting same-sex marriage. However, these precedent-setting events raise many new questions. Despite the apparent growing acceptance of same-sex marriage, there remain many people of faith who are grappling with their individual responses to this changing societal and legal landscape. In addition, many houses of worship and faith-based institutions now must also set internal decisions and policies about same-sex marriage that take into account these organizations’ potentially diverse individual populations.

Christians are often painted with a wide brush and publicly perceived as ubiquitously like-minded when it comes to the same sex marriage debate. However, people of faith display a wide spectrum of diverse opinions and reactions when approaching this complex issue. Even among the large number of Christians who believe marriage is an institution ordained by God and meant for only one man and one woman, the responses to the ballot initiative, bills, and court decisions legalizing same-sex marriage are varied. Some will depend upon the judicial system to protect the constitutionality of statutes and electoral measures that define the parameters of marriage as a heterosexual institution. Still others will advocate for legislative proposals that define the scope of marriage because they conclude that it is the government’s responsibility to uphold what is in society’s best interest.

Others will recognize a need for domestic partnerships, or other legally equivalent status protections, as an option for same-sex couples. These status protections for same-sex couples would take into account that we live in a pluralistic society with many different individual voices and lifestyle choices. Where status-protection options such as civil unions or domestic partnerships don’t exist, couples are often denied certain options, such as hospital visitation of a loved one, financial and inheritance benefits, and access to certain healthcare benefits. Of course, granting other partnerships in society certain legal status protections doesn’t mean that these relationships should be called marriages. Marriage is not a creation of the state and has its origins outside public law. As the Center for Public Justice Guidelinesays, “Marriage is one of the most important institutions in any society and should be recognized as a lifelong covenant between a man and a woman.” A pluralistic society contains many forms of human partnerships and relationships that serve a variety of purposes that may be beneficial to the individuals in partnership or to society as a whole, but that are wholly distinct from marriage.

Christians and faith-based organizations are facing a much more divisive question, however, than the most effective method for promoting a traditional marriage ideal. There is a group of Christians who are approaching the growing societal acceptance and legalization of same-sex marriage with the recognition of the realities of diversity in a pluralistic society and the need to offer certain protections to individuals and institutions with whom we may disagree. This group is attempting to advocate for broad protections for faith-based groups to uphold their beliefs with respect to marriage (where same-sex marriage is legal). These individuals may or may not support the legalization of same-sex marriage, but they recognize the reality of a changing societal landscape and choose to work within this challenging framework to champion the rights of faith-based schools, hospitals, universities, social-services organizations and other institutions to uphold their religiously based definitions of marriage. These people of faith believe that houses of worship and faith-based institutions should not have to worry about the ability to carry out their missions.

A few examples will shed a little light on how faith-based organizations could be effected if required legally to acknowledge the validity of same-sex marriages. A Catholic adoption agency could be forced to choose between granting adoptions to same-sex married couples despite countering the organization’s religious beliefs, or stopping adoptions altogether. (This actually happened in Massachusetts.) A private Christian elementary school could be forced to provide healthcare benefits for the same-sex spouse of an employee, even though recognizing same-sex marriage as valid goes against the school’s religious teachings. A faith-based social services agency could be forced to provide marriage counseling to same-sex couples and stifle its faith doctrine that marriage is between a man and a woman.

Despite these very real threats to the day-to-day operations of faith-based groups, there is a strong contingency of Christians who believe that marriage traditionalists must not acquiesce, compromise or accept the current legal landscape and must fight for a complete ouster of same-sex marriage on a local, state and federal level. This is a sensitive topic for many Christian groups and individuals, many of whom have identical faith-doctrines with respect to marriage, yet opposing views on the most effective response.

By way of example, Maryland’s recently passed same-sex marriage initiative contains language with respect to the protections of faith-based groups: “religious organizations and certain related entities are not required to provide goods, services, or benefits to an individual related to the celebration or promotion of marriage in violation of their religious beliefs.” The fact that the Maryland law will contain any language that attempts to protect religious freedom is a testament to individuals who may largely advocate for marriage between one man and one woman, yet who also recognize that it is imperative to work within the context of existing realities in addition to advocating for big-picture ideals.

The language in Maryland’s law is far from perfect. It doesn’t contain protection language specifically exempting faith-based organizations from treating any same-sex marriage as valid and it remains to be seen how state courts will interpret the phrase “celebration or promotion of marriage.” Generally speaking, I am concerned that the phrase “celebration and promotion of marriage” has a more limited scope of protection than “treat marriage as valid” language. For example, while Maryland’s law would likely exempt a church from renting its facilities to a same-sex couple for their wedding ceremony, it is unclear whether it would be legally permissible for a Christian counseling organization to decline providing counseling for same-sex spouses.

Whether the existing language will be enough to allow faith-based organizations to uphold their own respective religious characters remains to be seen. There will be varied responses on how to treat same-sex marriage in different contexts, including hiring, admission, and other inclusion decisions. However wherever same-sex marriage is legalized there should be robust protections to allow faith-based institutions the freedom to decide for themselves how they will shape their policies towards these couples. We must recognize the complex needs of a pluralistic society and not segment same-sex marriage into all-or-nothing polarities.

As this debate continues to make headlines, it is vital that we are able to engage in this conversation with tolerance, humanity and justice. Do as much listening as talking, especially if you are speaking to someone who does not share your view or life experiences with this topic. Do you know what your state’s statutes on same-sex marriage, domestic partnerships, and religious freedom protections are? Do you work, volunteer, or receive services from a faith-based organization? Ask what their policies for these issues are. Bring the necessity for strong religious protections to the attention of your state legislative representative, your parents, your Bible study group. The tenuous balance of individual protections and institutional religious freedoms is still teetering in most states. How it plays out is largely up to us.

- Chelsea Langston is an attorney who works at a non-profit consumer organization in Washington, DC.