There is no good reason religious people should oppose marriage equality. In fact, there’s every good reason, including religious reasons, for supporting the freedom to marry.
This November, Maryland voters will have the historic opportunity to extend the rights and responsibilities of marriage to gay and lesbian couples. Specifically, Marylanders will vote on Question 6, asking them to approve or reject a marriage equality bill state legislators passed earlier this year.
Should voters affirm the law, Maryland would join six other states and the District of Columbia – as well as become the first state below the Mason-Dixon Line – that currently allow loving and committed same-sex couples to marry. It would also make Maryland the first state (or one of the first states, depending on the results of Maine and Washington’s marriage equality referenda) to approve of marriage equality at the ballot box.
In short, approving marriage equality at the ballot box in Maryland would be a historic moment in the fight for “liberty and justice for all.”
Some opponents of equality are claiming that allowing loving and committed gay and lesbian couples to marry somehow poses a threat to religious freedom. As a recent report by my colleagues at the Center for American Progress shows, Maryland is one of many states that has demonstrated the freedom to marry and the freedom to worship are wholly compatible with one another.
Earlier this year, the Maryland Legislature passed and Gov. Martin O’Malley into law a bill that extended marriage equality to same-sex couples. This bill ensures that religious institutions can continue to believe and practice their faith as they choose, unchanged by the law. Indeed, although such a freedom of religion is already guaranteed in the Constitution, the proposed law goes out of its way to reassure religious groups of that protection.
In fact, no clergyperson of any denomination/faith is required to officiate at any wedding, gay or straight. A clergyperson has the right to decline any request to preside at a marriage without giving any reason for doing so. That is already the law.
Maryland lawmakers also went a step further by including language exempting religious institution or organization from certain laws that would otherwise outlaw discrimination against same-sex couples. For example, even though it will remain illegal to deny a same-sex couple service at a restaurant in the state of Maryland, religious institutions can choose to not open their doors to same-sex couples for rehearsal dinners, wedding ceremonies, and for other marriage-related accommodations.
Maryland is not unique in providing these kinds of exemptions. In fact, every state that has passed a marriage equality bill has included some type of religious exemption language, according to the Center for American Progress report.
And just in case voters in Maryland needed a reminder about the bill’s religious freedom provisions, 75 percent of the referendum language itself is not about marriage equality, but instead about the types of religious exemption provisions that lawmakers included in the original bill:
Establishes that Maryland’s civil marriage laws allow gay and lesbian couples to obtain a civil marriage license, provided they are not otherwise prohibited from marrying; protects clergy from having to perform any particular marriage ceremony in violation of their religious beliefs; affirms that each religious faith has exclusive control over its own theological doctrine regarding who may marry within that faith; and provides that 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.
In Maryland and elsewhere, the state is in no way muzzling religious freedoms by allowing gay and lesbian couples to marry. Instead, I would maintain that the separation of church and state is being violated in the absence of a marriage equality law – violated not by the state, but by religious institutions themselves. Usually, when we speak of the separation of church and state, we are concerned that the state might impinge on the rights and freedoms promised religious institutions in the Constitution. But in the case of marriage equality, we see religious institutions trying to impose their will and their faith on the body politic, attempting to use faith and scripture to keep the state from guaranteeing “liberty and justice for all” as promised in the Constitution.
We can’t have it both ways. If separation of church and state is good and appropriate for the protection of the church, it should also be good and appropriate for the protection of the state from undue influence by religion. Maryland’s Roman Catholic bishops’ caution that marriage equality “infringe[s] upon the religious liberties of individuals and institutions” displays either an ignorance of what the law actually says, or an intentional distortion of the truth.
I believe in the people of Maryland and their ability to separate truth from distortion. Marylanders know what “fair” is. And they believe in “fair.” When the Constitution promises “liberty and justice for all,” come November, voting “yes” on Question 6, Maryland voters will make the word “all” mean “all” in Maryland.
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