REPORT: Freedom To Marry And Freedom To Worship Are Compatible

Our guest blogger is Elena Caple, intern with the Center for American Progress.

Conservatives across the country continue to bemoan the alleged attack on their religious liberties.  As Mitt Romney stated last February, “I don’t think we’ve seen, in the history of this country, the kind of attack on religious conscience, religious freedom, religious tolerance that we’ve seen in Barack Obama.” With regards to relationship recognition, for example, many opponents of marriage equality believe that extending marital rights to same-sex couples would somehow threaten “religious liberty.”

However, the facts beg to differ. Today, the Center for American Progress released a report affirming that the freedom of religion and the freedom of marriage are perfectly compatible with one another. This report — “Twin Freedoms: The Facts About Freedom of Religion and the Freedom to Marry” — offers for the first time a comprehensive state-by-state analysis of marriage equality legislation and the religious exemption provisions lawmakers passed.

Notably, every single state that has passed marriage equality legislation has included some kind of religious exemption provision within the legislative text of the bill itself. All of these states, for example, have used exemptions to reiterate and clarify clergy’s First Amendment rights, by stating that no religious leader will be forced to marry a couple whose arrangement violates that leader’s faith.

These states have also instituted further exemptions that allow religious institutions to deny goods, services, and accommodations to same-sex couples in certain instances. Additionally, each state that has passed marriage equality legislation has included at least a narrow version of a public-accommodations exemption, which essentially allows religious institutions to prohibit a couple from using wedding-related accommodations. For example, in such states a church may refuse to rent a banquet hall to a same-sex couple looking for a space for their rehearsal dinner.

Other states have instituted broader exemptions that go beyond the wedding itself and give religious institutions the ability to deny services such as marriage counseling to same-sex couples, even if such services are made available to the public. These kinds of provisions could also give religious institutions license to turn away same-sex couples from homeless shelters and food pantries.

Religious exemptions have been useful in securing marital recognition for same-sex couples in numerous states. It is important, however, to recognize that these exemptions can often have a negative impact on same-sex couples seeking a range of goods, services, and accommodations from religiously affiliated organizations, with some having a more pronounced effect than others. For the most part, the religious exemptions that have been adopted by states thus far have not come at a high cost compared to the benefits of recognizing marriages between same-sex couples. At the same time, many of these religious exemptions have not been in place for very long, especially those that have become increasingly broad in scope. Therefore, their ultimate impact is still not completely clear.

Even with the exemptions that have been included so far, some conservatives argue these provisions do not go far enough. They contend that for religious freedom to be fully “protected,” state lawmakers actually need to give individuals a legal right to discriminate against gay people. Conservatives argue that lawmakers should enact so-called “individual conscience” exemptions that would, for example, give license to restaurant owners to deny service to a same-sex couple, simply because they are gay. Luckily, no state has gone so far as to include such harmful provisions.

Opponents of marriage equality argue that marriage equality and religious freedom are incompatible, that marriage equality somehow weakens “religious liberty.” In actuality, marriage equality is simply about allowing gay men and women to marry the person they love. And while including religious exemption provisions has often been helpful in getting marriage equality across the finish line, CAP’s report makes clear that lawmakers must be careful not to privilege the freedom to worship at the expense of equality.