Marriage equality and religious freedom are compatible

March 27, 2013

Yesterday I spent several hours outside the United States Supreme Court with my colleague Ed Beck, our resident policy analyst, representing the Center for Inquiry and, more broadly, secular values.

As you probably already know, the Court was hearing oral arguments over Proposition 8 (today they heard oral arguments over the Defense of Marriage Act). Accordingly, there was a lot of action outside the Court: the pro-marriage equality United for Marriage Rally and anti-marriage equality March for Marriage each drew several thousand people — though I will gladly note that the United for Marriage Rally was larger, lasted longer, and continued today.

Ed and I spent our time at the Court speaking with marriage equality activists, debating marriage equality opponents (you can see Ed in action in this Washington Post photograph), talking with the media, and reading all of the clever and witty signs.

One of the signs that caught my attention read, “Marriage Equality IS Religious Freedom.” On the other side it read: “Another Minister for Marriage Equality.”

I thought it was great to see a positive message from a religious leader, so I quickly snapped a couple pictures (one of which was noted in this compilation by Business Insider) before the crowd forced me in a different direction.

Upon returning to the office, I was reminded that unfortunately not everyone agrees. In my Google alert for “religious freedom” was an article by Erick Erickson, in which Erickson claims that same-sex marriage and religious freedom are completely incompatible. His evidence? Several cases in which companies got into legal trouble for discriminating against lesbian or gay persons. News that some state governments are no longer providing taxpayer funds to organizations that exclude same-sex couples in adoption services. Oh, and the case of a person who was reportedly fired from his job after writing an essay against marriage equality.

In other words: for Erickson, religious freedom entails the freedom discriminate against those you do not like, and the freedom to make others live according to your religious beliefs. Equality? Civil rights laws? The secular U.S. Constitution? The Establishment Clause? Lemon v. Kurtzman? You might like these things, but religious believers have religious freedom, and are not required to respect or follow them. Or so says Erick Erickson.

Suffice it to say that this is a severely warped version of religious freedom. Allow to me to briefly correct Mr. Erickson regarding what religious is, and why it is compatible with marriage equality.

  • Religious freedom allows individuals to believe and worship as they wish; it also allows houses of worship to promote and practice their religious tenets as they wish. It does not allow believers or houses of worship to expect their beliefs will form the basis of our public policy.
  • Religious freedom allows churches to not perform same-sex marriages; it also allows churches to perform same-sex marriages if they choose to.
  • Religious freedom allows religious believers and religious groups to operate organizations which provide social services. However, it does not require them to operate such organizations, nor does it require the government to fund them with taxpayer dollars.
  • Religious freedom allows religious believers to operate businesses. However, it does not allow businesses to discriminate simply because they are run by religious believers.

Don’t want to get married to a gay or lesbian person? Fine. No one is forcing you. Don’t want your church to perform same-sex marriages? Fine. Marriage equality laws include, as they should, exemption clauses for houses of worship and religious leaders. Don’t want to serve gay or lesbian persons or couples? Fine. Then don’t open up a business that serves the general public. Don’t want to place children with same-sex couples? Fine. But don’t expect the government to fund your work.

True religious freedom respects the rights of all invidivuals over their own conscience, including decisions regarding who and who not to marry. True religious freedom is not only compatible with marriage equality — it is an essential component of marriage equality.

I know at least one minister who agrees with me. Perhaps Mr. Erickson should ask him for his take on this issue. Who knows — he might learn a thing or two.