A bill legalizing same-sex marriage for couples in New York State is at a standstill over the issue of exemptions for religious organizations and individuals. The reach of these religious protections is wide-ranging -from whether Catholic adoption agencies may reject same-sex couples, to the right of religious caterers to refuse services for gay weddings. In New York State’s Marriage Equality Act, should there be exemptions for religion? What should happen when equal rights for gay citizens and the right to religious free exercise clash?
A religious exemption for caterers? Really? Doesn’t this expose the fundamental contradiction between “religious exemptions” and equal civil rights for lesbians, gay men, bisexuals and transgender people? If you include catering, a completely contractual and voluntary arrangement to provide food services, in a “religious exemption” clause, you are just catering to bigotry instead.
The situation in New York risks becoming an example of “over-accommodation.” The “Free Exercise Clause” of the U.S. Constitution usually means protections against infringements against individuals’ beliefs and practices that are “fundamental,” “ultimate,” and that have “formal and external signs like clergy and the observance of holidays.” New York’s current laws are already sufficient to protect serious questions of religious conscience in the fundamental issue, namely whether a faith group would be required to perform a same-sex wedding. They won’t.
In the case of the Catholic Church and adoption, however, there can be no “religious exemption” if the Catholic charities that provide adoption services accept federal funds. As I have written before in “Caesar’s money, Caesar’s rules,” “it would be a big mistake to ‘exempt’ religious organizations that receive government funding and allow them to discriminate against some Americans because of their religious beliefs. Just stop giving taxpayer dollars to religious organizations for them to distribute. That will solve the problem. If we keep church and state separate, these issues do not arise.” There should be no “religious exemption” when an organization is receiving federal funds.
At the end of the day, we need to ask ourselves whether these issues of “religious exemptions” are not merely attempts to bog down marriage equality legislation and keep it from becoming law. Giving in to such tactics is just validating the idea that it is okay in the United States of America that some citizens do not get equal treatment under the law.
Don’t cater to that. It’s wrong.
More On Faith and same-sex marriage:
Poling: Respect religious convictions
Full panel debate on New York’s same sex marriage bill
Susan Brooks Thistlethwaite | Jun 22, 2011 9:42 AM