October 19, 2012

On Nov. 6, Maryland voters will decide the fate of a measure that not only redefines marriage but also presents a serious threat to the religious liberty of individuals and religious institutions.

Contrary to the claim made by Bishop V. Gene Robinson in his recent Post commentary [“Liberty and justice for all in Maryland,” On Faith, Oct. 13], supporters of traditional marriage in Maryland are by no means engaging in “intentional distortion of the truth.” Rather, hundreds of faith leaders and thousands of Maryland residents have raised sincere and grave concerns about Maryland’s Question 6. I share their concerns and urge the people of Maryland not to be fooled by what they read on the ballot.

The fundamental goal of Question 6 is to change our state’s definition of marriage, a definition that has been recognized by society for thousands of years. The law does not simply “allow gay and lesbian couples to obtain a civil marriage license,” as the ballot question states; it explicitly states that marriage in Maryland will be defined as the union of “any two individuals who are not otherwise prohibited from marrying.”

In a thinly veiled attempt to assuage concerns inevitably raised by the law, three-quarters of the ballot language is then devoted to a description of the measure’s supposed religious-freedom protections. Of course, clergy will not be forced to perform a marriage in violation of their religious beliefs; this basic protection exists in the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution as well as in the Maryland Constitution. But beyond that, the law contains no protection for the religious rights of individuals, and it does not protect religious organizations from a wide range of punitive actions by the government.

When Gallaudet University in the District placed its diversity officer on administrative leave simply for signing a petition to put the law before the voters, we witnessed an example of the host of potential threats the law would pose to the religious liberty of individuals. I pray that Angela McCaskill is reinstated by the university, but regardless of the final disposition, her case is part of a trend in which supporters of traditional marriage — often acting from their faith traditions — are punished for their beliefs.

As has happened in other states, individuals — such as an innkeeper in Vermont or a wedding photographer in New Mexico — who decline to assist with celebrating unions contrary to their beliefs could face fines, lawsuits and infringements on their business. If Question 6 passes, there will be no legal protection for individuals, business owners and the everyday citizens of Maryland if their deeply held beliefs about marriage come into conflict with state law.

As for protections for religious institutions, voters need to know that the ballot language omits a significant piece of the law — the provision that takes away any such protection if the religious organization conducts social, educational or medical services under a contract with government and receives state or federal funds.

Further, the ballot language includes wording that is not part of the law. The question states that religious organizations do not have to provide “benefits” in violation of their beliefs. But the word “benefits” does not appear in the law. In fact, my colleagues in the Maryland Senate rejected an amendment to include the word “benefits.” In reality, the law provides no protection to religious organizations whose tenets would be violated by providing employment benefits to gay and lesbian married couples.

If Question 6 passes, ministries that seek to hold true to traditional religious beliefs may find themselves barred from using public parks, renting government buildings, staffing themselves with like-minded people of faith and bidding on government social services contracts. They may also find themselves required to provide leave and medical benefits contrary to their faith, and they could experience assaults on their tax-exempt status.

We need to face the facts about Question 6. Before we redefine marriage in Maryland, we must contemplate the conflicts that will result between the government and individuals and religious institutions who believe marriage is the union of one man and one woman. With all due respect to the religious leaders who claim otherwise, our religious freedom hangs in the balance with Question 6.

The writer, a Democrat, represents Prince George’s County in the Maryland Senate. He is senior pastor of Safety Christian Church in Upper Marlboro.