Could Religious Exemptions Exempt Marriage Equality From Any Meaning?

As the debate around marriage equality in New York reaches its (hopefully) final days, much of the conversation is focused on “religious exemptions.” These could be any number of special provisions that allow religious organizations — and perhaps even businesses — to exercise a religious objection against recognizing same-sex marriages. Sen. Greg Ball (R), who could be the swing vote needed to pass the marriage equality bill this week, has called for such carveouts for businesses, which are not part of any existing same-sex marriage law.

Carlos Maza at Equality Matters and Jeremy Hooper at Good As You have both thoroughly debunked the claims that such “protections” are needed. For example, Maza recently pointed out that New York already prohibits discrimination against same-sex couples by adoption agencies (Lambda Legal Memo PDF). Catholic Charities would not be “forced” to stop their services; marriage equality would change nothing about the standard they are held to.

The important takeaway, though, is that these religious exemptions could undermine marriage equality entirely. Same-sex couples seek to be recognized as a form of protection, whether it’s their ability to take care of each other, take care of their children, or live free of discrimination. As the New Jersey Civil Union Review Commission found in its study of civil unions, same-sex couples suffer greatly if their relationships are not recognized as marriage (PDF):

In a number of cases, the negative effect of the Civil Union Act on the physical and mental health of same-sex couples and their children is striking, largely because a number of employers and hospitals do not recognize the rights and benefits of marriage for civil union couples.

No religion is being asked to redefine its tenets to recognize same-sex couples. The argument for these exemptions is actually a straw man for opposing marriage equality. Religious groups do not see it as a compromise, as many religious leaders have made it quite clear that they would not support the bill any more with the exemptions than without. Even if the language were enough to get an affirmative vote from Senators like Ball, it could actually compromise the entire value of the bill.


It’s unclear what carveouts might be included in the bill, or whether the bill will even come to a vote today. But, if the legislature insists that members of society be allowed to reject or ignore same-sex marriages, it would be a message to same-sex couples that true equality is still a long ways off.