A Religious Exemption From the Rule of Law

As originally written and introduced, the marriage bill that recently failed to pass in Maryland was very straightforward, simply removing the restriction that limits marriage to opposite-sex couples. Other laws in the state would have remained unchanged. However, a number of equality opponents expressed concern that some people would have to recognize the civil marriages of same-sex couples in violation of their sincerely held religious beliefs. Therefore, they introduced a variety of "conscience clause" amendments.

These amendments tell us a great deal about their supporters' real agenda, and it has nothing to do with a principled stand for religious liberty. The amendments did things like provide:

  • that a public school teacher not be required to teach materials that promote same-sex marriage if the content of the materials violates their sincerely held religious beliefs.
  • that a religious entity (or any nonprofit organization operated or controlled by one) need not provide adoption, foster care, or social services if providing the services would violate the entity's religious beliefs.
  • that a government employee (like a clerk or judge) not be required to perform a civil marriage ceremony if performance of the ceremony would violate their sincerely held religious beliefs.

The common phrasing – violating someone's religious beliefs, as opposed to violating their First Amendment rights – is extremely important. It makes it sound like people's constitutional Free Exercise rights are being protected. But in Maryland and elsewhere, that is not the case: Provisions like these do not codify existing First Amendment rights to the free exercise of religion.

Neutral laws of general applicability that infringe on a person's religious beliefs have been upheld as not violating a person's First Amendment rights. For instance, in the 1990 Employment Division v. Smith case, the Supreme Court upheld Oregon's right to deny unemployment benefits to a person who had been fired for violating the state's anti-drugs laws (specifically, smoking peyote), even though the person smoked peyote as part of his religion.

In that case, with Justice Scalia writing for the majority, the Court ruled that the First Amendment does not allow a person to cite their own religious beliefs as a reason not to obey generally applicable laws. "To permit this would be to make the professed doctrines of religious belief superior to the law of the land, and in effect to permit every citizen to become a law unto himself."

Anti-discrimination laws have long required people to do things that may not be consistent with their religious faith. For instance, an election worker who believes God commanded the sexes to remain separate in public cannot force men and women to vote in different rooms. A white innkeeper who believes that God commands segregation must nevertheless open his inn to all races. An employer who believes God commanded women to defer to men cannot refuse to make women supervisors.

So opponents of marriage equality certainly aren't acting to protect anyone's constitutional right to religious liberty. What they are demanding is a religious exemption from laws they don't like.

As if that wasn't bad enough, it's only those who share their particular religious beliefs who they deem worthy of this special right.

Since the marriage equality bill in Maryland failed to pass, have these self-styled stalwarts of religious liberty insisted that the amendments they proposed be made into law anyway, as general religious liberty protections not targeting gay people as a class?

They have not.

Perhaps what drives them is animus toward gays and lesbians. Or perhaps it's an arrogant certainty that their religious beliefs and no one else's should be protected by law.

Whatever it is, it certainly is not a principled fidelity to religious liberty.

We faced a similar issue more than forty years ago, when people with religious opposition to interracial marriages found themselves in a society that no longer prohibited such marriages. Indeed, as the Virginia trial court judge wrote when convicting Richard and Mildred Loving of violating the state's prohibition of interracial marriage:

"Almighty God created the races white, black, yellow, malay and red, and he placed them on separate continents. And but for the interference with his arrangement there would be no cause for such marriages. The fact that he separated the races shows that he did not intend for the races to mix."

After Loving v. Virginia, our nation did not empower that judge or any other public official to opt out of performing his duty to marry eligible couples simply because he personally opposed interracial marriages on religious grounds. Nor did we empower public school teachers to "opt out" of teaching students that such couples exist. No different standard should be applied with respect to gay couples.

PFAW