Gay Rights, Religious Liberties: A Three-Act Story : NPR

Morning Edition, June 16, 2008 · As gay couples in California head to the courthouse starting Monday to get legally married, there are signs of a coming storm. Two titanic legal principles are crashing on the steps of the church, synagogue and mosque: equal treatment for same-sex couples on the one hand, and the freedom to exercise religious beliefs on the other.

The collision that will play out over the next few years will be filled with pathos on both sides.

As many of my regular readers know, before I moved to Utah, I lived in San Francisco for many, many years, and Santa Cruz prior to that. Needless to say, having spent nearly 2 decades in Northern California, the issue of gay rights has had a lot of visibility in my life … so to me, the recent California Supreme Court decision overturning the state’s ban on same-sex marriage prompted thoughts of “It’s about freakin’ time!”

I’ve always felt that it was just plain wrong to deny gay couples involved in a committed long-term and loving relationship the same basic rights that a violent, abusive husband has simply by virtue that his wife hasn’t yet filed for divorce.

And seriously, how does Adam & Steve getting married have a negative impact on Adam & Eve’s marriage?

Wedding bells chime for California same-sex couples

Lesbian rights activists Del Martin, 87, and Phyllis Lyon, 84, were the first same-sex couple to receive a marriage license in San Francisco on Monday, with Mayor Gavin Newsom presiding over their wedding ceremony.

“This is an extraordinary moment in history,” Newsom told a cheering, standing-room-only crowd at City Hall. “I think today, marriage as an institution has been strengthened.”

But this morning, I listened to the above linked (and excerpted) story on NPR’s Morning Edition … and it got me thinking about some of the other involved issues tied to gay marriage … and religious freedom.

In the story, a lesbian couple wished to have their (New Jersey) civil union ceremony performed in a Pavilion owned by a Methodist retreat center, formally known as the Ocean Grove Camp Meeting Association. The Methodist group gave them permission to have their ceremony anywhere on the property except those areas used for religious purposes by the group.

The couple filed an anti-discrimination suit. The NPR story continues:

The Methodist organization responded that it was their property, and the First Amendment protects their right to practice their faith without government intrusion. But Lustberg countered that the pavilion is open to everyone — and therefore the group could no more refuse to accommodate the lesbians than a restaurant owner could refuse to serve a black man. That argument carried the day. The state revoked the organization’s tax exemption for the pavilion area. Hoffman figures they will lose $20,000.

Now, with the help of the Alliance Defense Fund (ADF), a Christian legal firm, Hoffman is appealing the case to state court. He says religious freedom itself is in jeopardy.

“And that potentially affects every religious organization in America, not just Christian organizations, but every religious organization. And I get calls from Jewish rabbis who are equally concerned — people from across the spectrum who think it’s a battle worth fighting. And we agree,” Hoffman says.

Now, I am hardly the most religious person in the world, but I do believe that any person should be able to practice the religion of their choice … and in this particular case, I happen to agree with Reverend Hoffman; especially since the group didn’t tell the couple they couldn’t have their ceremony on the property at all, just not within structures used for religious purposes by the group.

A case like this, carried to its extreme, could mean that the the Catholic Church and the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (and everyone else) could be forced to allow gay couples to hold their civil ceremonies (and/or marriages, in those states which currently or will ultimately allow them) on, and within Church property.

While part of me finds the idea of the Mormons being forced to allow gay weddings amusing, not only on Temple Square but within the Temple itself, a far bigger part of me feels that the members of a church should be allowed to worship as they please, and that churches should be able to disallow activity on their property that goes against their core beliefs.

I don’t equate a church refusing to allow a gay couple to “marry” on church property because it’s against their religious beliefs, with a restaurant owner refusing to serve a person simply based on the color of their skin … primarily because owning a business isn’t protected as free speech or freedom of religion, as guaranteed by the First Amendment.

Elsewhere in the overall piece is a story about a wedding photographer who was sued for discrimination because his business indicated that they would not photograph same-sex marriages because it goes against the owners’ religious beliefs.

This is a little closer to the restaurant analogy … but it’s still an iffy situation.

I’m afraid that these kinds of legal battles may lead to a backlash against the gay and lesbian community; that groups like the Ocean Grove Camp Meeting Association will close up their property to everyone, and only allow it to be used for religious purposes. I’m afraid that more states; less enlightened states, will put amendments banning gay marriage into their constitutions.

I’m afraid that society, while making making some huge steps forward right now, will get pushed back even further …

What are your thoughts, dear readers?