The legalization of same-gender marriage last Friday in New York State was very exciting and a great step forward in the fight for LGBT rights! However, an unfortunate facet of the legislation is the so-called religious exemptions that allowed the bill to pass. Throughout the debate, opponents of same-gender marriage claimed that religious exemptions were necessary to prevent infringement upon religious freedom. Freedom of religion is one of the most important rights we have as Americans. I understand the sentiment behind these objections, but these worries are misguided.
Allowing marriage equality would never have infringed upon anyone’s freedom of religion; The First Amendment already protects free exercise of religion and even without the exemptions, clergy would never be forced to conduct marriages not in line with their religious beliefs. Furthermore, I worry that putting these exemptions in the law represents a mistrust or misunderstanding of the First Amendment. While, I am happy explicit religious protections convinced enough legislators to support the bill and I can try to see spelling out firm protections as a good thing, I do believe they detract from this long awaited law.
As Rev. Welton Gaddy, president of Interfaith Alliance and host of State of Belief said after the law passed,
“New York will treat all citizens fairly. Members of the LGBT community in New York no longer will be denied access to the right to marry based on a civil prohibition shaped by some people’s religious convictions.”
Rev. Gaddy also stated his pleasure that “New York’s legislators took religious freedom so seriously,” but expressed concern that the exemptions imply that the First Amendment lacks strong enough protections for religious freedom, as he believes it is adequate. This is the same concern I had.
The religious protections in the bill ensure that private religious organizations, such as churches, will not be forced to perform any sort of marriage ceremony they do not condone. Also protected are “religious orders,” such as the Knights of Columbus, and religious corporations along with the nonprofit organizations they operate and their employees. These protections were critical to the passage of the bill, as swing vote State Senator Mark Grisanti said in his explanation for his yes vote. In fact, Sen. Grisanti very nearly voted against the bill for fear that the religious exemptions were not strong enough. One considered exemption that thankfully was not in the law was the option for private citizens in private, non-religious organizations to discriminate against same-gender couples for religious reasons. This clause would have made the bill far less of an achievement.
It is concerning that legislators thought these religious protections were necessary. It speaks to a lack of understanding of the First Amendment. Forcing churches to perform a religious ceremony, such as marriage, would be in direct conflict with the free exercise clause of the First Amendment and would not happen. While, I understand the desire to make such exceptions clear, their redundant presence in the bill is concerning. I’d like to think these exceptions further protect the boundary between institutions of religion and government which is good for both, but I think their real purpose was to give some lawmakers political cover to support the bill.
This has been a tough year for supporters of same-gender marriage after bills failed to be brought for votes in Maryland and Rhode Island. The New York law finally provides LGBT couples the opportunity to enjoy legally recognized marriage and the hundreds of legal benefits that go along with it. At a time when it feels like officials use political calculations to delay LGBT civil rights far too often, it was incredibly refreshing to see legislators summon the courage to act. It does make me uneasy that members of the New York State Government thought they had to include language for religious protection when all the protection they need is in the First Amendment of the Constitution, but I sympathize with their motivation. In the fight for LGBT equality, a fight with far more losses than victories, last Friday’s vote was undoubtedly a win.
For more on the marriage equality law in New York, check out this conversation on State of Belief with Cathy Marino-Thomas, chair of Marriage Equality New York, with a look at the efforts that went into achieving marriage equality. (Please note, these are extended versions of the interviews originally broadcast nationwide.) For more on Same-Gender Marriage and Religious Freedom see http://www.interfaithalliance.org/equality/read