Correction to This Article
An earlier version of The God in Government column incorrectly described the Family Research Council as a division of Focus on the Family. It is a separate organization.

Exemption for Religious Foes Of Gay Marriage Debated

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Saturday, May 16, 2009

As a growing number of states legalize same-sex marriage, there is growing attention on exemptions for religious institutions and individuals who find the concept morally objectionable and religiously untenable. This week, New Hampshire Gov. John Lynch (D) said he would sign legislation to make his state the sixth to legalize gay marriage if the legislature ensured religious protections.

Vermont and Connecticut have enacted laws that exempt clergy from performing same-sex marriages and give religious groups the right to refuse their facilities for same-sex marriage celebrations and allow them to refuse to provide insurance benefits to same-sex partners.

With those exemptions, said George Washington University constitutional law professor Ira Lupu on the legal blog Concurring Opinions, "religious conservatives and secular progressives now have the opportunity to reach political bargains."

But conservatives who oppose same-sex marriage say they are very suspicious of religious exemptions. Some, such as those exempting clergy from performing same-sex marriages, are nothing new because the First Amendment already protects clergy, they say.

Peter Sprigg, a senior fellow for policy studies at the Family Research Council said the laws generally protect only religiously affiliated organizations. They doesn't protect business people, such as a florist who believes it is against his faith to provide goods and services to same-sex couples.

"I really don't put a lot of faith in religious exemptions," said Sprigg, whose organization opposes all same-sex marriage bills no matter what the religious exemptions are.

Gay-rights groups don't have objections to religious exemptions such as those contained in the Connecticut bill, said Chris Edelson, state legislative director for the Human Rights Campaign, a gay-rights group based in Washington. Private groups "can discriminate." But if a group is open to the public, such as a business, "that is a different matter." Businesses, he said, should not be allowed to refuse to serve gay couples.

Robin Wilson, a law professor at Washington and Lee University who has been pushing for religious exemptions in states where legalizing same-sex marriage is under consideration, said she agrees with Focus on the Family that there is risk for commercial enterprises and also for individuals "in the stream of commerce" of same-sex weddings, such as wedding advisers, caterers and photographers, who may be compelled to provide services even though it would violate an individual's deeply held religious beliefs.

"Conscience protections are a thoroughly American idea," she argued in a recent column in the Los Angeles Times. Since Colonial times, she says, "legislatures have exempted religious minorities from laws inconsistent with their faith."


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