By Father John Flynn, LC
ROME, MAY 31, 2009 (Zenit.org).- The issue of legalizing same-sex marriages continues to be at the forefront of debate. On Tuesday the Californian Supreme Court upheld a referendum, Proposition 8, which modified the state constitution to restrict marriage to heterosexual couples.
The referendum invalidated a previous decision by the state’s Supreme Court that resulted in the legalization of same-sex marriage.
In the weeks preceding the latest decision same-sex marriage was legalized in three states. As a result, five states now allow such marriages — Massachusetts, Connecticut, Maine, Vermont and Iowa.
As a May 27 article in the Washington Post pointed out, four of these states are in the Northeast and the exception, Iowa, saw legalization introduced through a state Supreme Court decision and not a legislative vote.
An important element in the debates over the issue has been that of religious freedom. In a May 23 New York Times column, Peter Steinfels commented that a proposal to legalize same-sex marriage had stalled in New Hampshire due to state governor John Lynch insisting that he would only sign the bill if it had stronger guarantees to protect religious institutions. This was rejected by the bill’s backers in the House of Representatives.
New Hampshire’s experience could well influence debates in other states, such as New York, Steinfels observed.
How much of a threat to religious freedom is the introduction of same-sex marriage? A recent consideration of the matter came in a question and answer forum sponsored by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life.
In the transcript, published May 21, professors Robert W. Tuttle and Ira “Chip” Lupu of The George Washington University Law School discussed the possible conflicts.
Opponents of same-sex marriage, they noted, are concerned that preaching against homosexuality in sermons could become a criminal offense.
Other concerns involve religious institutions, such as hospitals and universities, who fear they may be obliged to provide the same benefits to same-sex couples as they currently do for heterosexual spouses.
This is not just a theoretical consideration, the two professors added. In 2006, Catholic Charities in Massachusetts had to stop its adoption service as state anti-discrimination laws were changed, making it obligatory for agencies to offer children for adoption by same-sex couples.
Another area of concern involves private businesses and individuals who have religious objections to same-sex marriage. This could involve those who provide services for weddings or rent out residential accommodation.
In their commentary the professors admitted that the legal situation of such religious objections is largely untested. Court battles so far have mainly centered on the question of whether states should recognize same-sex marriage.
So far religious objectors have not fared well in court decisions, according to an April 10 article published by the Washington Post. Among the examples cited were the following
— A Christian photographer was forced by the New Mexico Civil Rights Commission to pay $6,637 in attorney’s costs after she refused to photograph a same-sex couple’s commitment ceremony.
— A psychologist in Georgia was fired after she declined for religious reasons to counsel a lesbian about her relationship.
— Christian fertility doctors in California who refused to artificially inseminate a lesbian patient were barred by the state Supreme Court from invoking their religious beliefs in refusing treatment.
— A Christian student group was not recognized at a University of California law school because it denies membership to anyone practicing sex outside of traditional marriage.
— An online dating site, eHarmony, established by an evangelical Christian, Neil Clark Warren, agreed to provide services to homosexuals as part of the settlement of a complaint by a New Jersey man, who accused it of discrimination.
An opinion article published May 3 in the Los Angeles Times called for greater legal protection for those objecting on religious grounds to same-sex marriage. Robin Wilson, a professor of law at Washington and Lee University School of Law, argued that so far no state has provided sufficient guarantees of religious liberty when legalizing same-sex marriage.
Wilson conceded that legislation in Connecticut and Vermont did contain provisions for conscience objection, but the bills still do not provide sufficient protection for people such as wedding advisors, caterers, and photographers.
“Because of those laws, many people could have to choose between conscience and livelihood,” said Wilson.
Britain has also seen numerous conflicts and legal battles over this matter. Recently churches expressed fears that new anti-discrimination laws will oblige them to accept job applications made by homosexuals, reported the Telegraph newspaper, May 20.
The legislation will come into force next year, but until recently churches had hoped for an exemption. This expectation was dashed when at a recent conference Maria Eagle, the deputy equalities minister, said the law will cover almost all church employees.
“The circumstances in which religious institutions can practice anything less than full equality are few and far between,” she said, according to the Telegraph.
The Equality Bill, still to be finally approved by parliament, gives a narrow interpretation to the roles from which it is possible to exclude homosexuals on the basis of religious objections. It would be limited only to those who lead liturgy or spend most of their time teaching doctrine.
Christians who object to homosexuality are also increasingly coming under fire in Britain. Such people were described as “retarded homophobes” by the British Association for Adoption and Fostering, a state-funded agency, the Daily Mail newspaper reported, May 14.
The agency sets rules and organizes training for social workers across the country, according to the article.
The description of “retarded homophobes” was published in an official guide to adoption for homosexual couples published by the agency.
The Daily Mail quoted Patricia Morgan, author of a study of gay adoption, who said: “It is disgraceful that they do not wish to discuss the pros and cons of gay adoption. They just go in for abuse.”
A number of recent cases demonstrate that Christians face the risk of losing their jobs if they express their conscience objections. David Booker, a charity worker, was suspended for two weeks following a conversation he had with another staff member in which he spoke of his opposition to same-sex marriage, the Telegraph newspaper reported April 11.
Booker insisted he not a bigot and merely limited himself to expressing his personal opinion. His colleague had also assured him that the views he was expressing were not offensive, the Telegraph article added.
On March 22, the Telegraph had reported on the case of hotel owners, Peter and Hazelmary Bull. A same sex couple has sued the Christian owners of a seaside hotel for refusing to rent them a room.
New regulations added to the Equality Act in 2007 make it unlawful to refuse a person goods or facilities on the grounds of their sexuality.
Another case involved a marriage registrar employed by Islington Council in North London. Lillian Ladele objected to conducting ceremonies for same-sex civil partnerships. The council won an appeal against a previous ruling that had found it guilty of discrimination against Ladele for her views, the BBC reported last Dec. 19.
The judgment did note, however, that not all of the council management team treated Ladele’s beliefs sensitively.
For decades proponents of rights for homosexuals have made appeals for tolerance and compassion. Qualities that seem sorely lacking now
that they are increasingly winning legal recognition.