As an Episcopal priest at a parish in Brooklyn, I’ve officiated at scores of weddings. At each one, I stand in wonder at the divine presence that envelops couples as they make solemn vows to each other. At my own wedding, though, I learned that there is a difference between seeing and doing. Now it was me standing across from another human being, making unthinkably difficult promises, holding his hand as we committed to walking into the vast, unknown cloud of the future together.
That day, my husband and I called upon the ancient rites of our religion to sanctify our union. The 300 or so guests gathered at our church sang a 14th-century hymn as we walked down the aisle. Loving friends read from the Bible, a dear colleague preached an unforgettable sermon, and the bishop graciously administered the vows. Finally, after kneeling at the altar for a blessing, we stood and shared a holy kiss. It was one of the most profoundly spiritual experiences of my life.
Our wedding was an exercise of the freedom not only to be married under equal protection of the law but also to practice our religion. And yet a powerful political, legal and social movement is poised to prevail in its mission to relegate the marriages of L.G.B.T.Q. people to second-class status in name of “religious freedom.” It seems its true goal is not to advance its advocates’ religious freedom but to restrict ours.
Marriage, perhaps the most personal public institution, uncomfortably straddles the divide between religion and state. At the conclusion of every wedding I officiate, I sign both the church register and the state-issued marriage license. The Supreme Court’s 2015 ruling in Obergefell v. Hodges, which required states to perform and recognize same-sex marriages, reflected an affirmation of marriage equality that was already taking place in religious institutions. Today, same-sex marriage is a fully integrated part of some 15 religious traditions, including most mainline Protestant churches and three prominent Jewish movements, claiming millions of members throughout the country.
But groups such as the Alliance Defending Freedom claim that the existence of same-sex marriage places sexual rights above the rights of their supporters to worship, express opinions and run businesses as they choose. Tellingly, this strategy has focused on defending the supposed religious rights of private businesses rather than churches or even individuals. The Supreme Court endorsed religious freedoms for privately held for-profit corporations in the 2014 Burwell v. Hobby Lobby decision. Four years later, in Masterpiece Cakeshop v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission, the court sided with a baker who refused service to a same-sex couple, albeit on narrow procedural grounds that the court will soon revisit.
This term, the court plans to hear 303 Creative v. Elenis, the case of a Colorado-based web designer who wants to refuse business from same-sex couples as a matter of policy based on her religious beliefs. An amicus brief filed by a cohort of Christian and Jewish religious groups argues that the designer’s petition would harm people of faith and “lead many to perceive ‘religion’ as being opposed to LGBT equality and pluralism more generally.” The court agreed to consider the case within the scope of the business owner’s right to free speech rather than religious rights, but legal watchdogs point out that protecting the free speech of a company is most likely just a more palatable proxy argument for defending the owner’s “religious freedom” to turn away same-sex couples. The legal strategy behind 303 Creative v. Elenis was crafted by the Alliance Defending Freedom.
Court watchers expect the web designer to prevail in the case. Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr., who wrote the Hobby Lobby decision, told a sympathetic audience at a Notre Dame Law School event in Rome this summer that “religious liberty is fragile, and religious intolerance and persecution have been recurring features of human history.” Moreover, the religious freedom to discriminate against L.G.B.T.Q. people and their interests has been gaining momentum in lower courts, perhaps emboldening the majority.
To be honest, my husband and I wouldn’t have hired a web designer or a baker who didn’t want to celebrate with us. But that’s not the point. If the law allows same-sex couples to be treated differently from other couples, then our religious freedom to be married is not complete. The court is not being asked to rule whether members of the clergy should be forced to perform weddings that conflict with their beliefs or whether houses of worship should be mandated to welcome L.G.B.T.Q. people. As a member of the clergy in charge of a church, I would defend the First Amendment right for religious institutions to conduct themselves without government interference, even if I vehemently disagree with another tradition’s practices. Rather, the question here is whether my God-given right to be married to my spouse matters as much in the eyes of the law as someone else’s.
I pay attention to these cases not as a lawyer but as a gay man and a Christian. The arbitrary nature of what mostly straight people decide queer people can and cannot do trains us to keep an eye out on legal developments. But as a Christian, I consistently marvel at the vast theological differences between me and many of my coreligionists. I often wonder how they square all this legal contortion to restrict the rights of others with Jesus’ Great Commandment to love God and one another with all we have. Religious people on either side of this divide have largely settled into a chilly détente over our irreconcilable interpretations of Scripture. But I also doubt that those opposed to marriage equality have ever considered the mismatched scale of our respective motivations: If they win, they get to discriminate in the name of God; if we win, we get to keep the blessing of our families.
But one thing should be clear to those of us whose religious faith affirms the godly dignity of L.G.B.T.Q. people: We should never cede the ground of religious freedom. The court will hear arguments that the web designer, like the baker before her, should have the right to express her beliefs through the clients she chooses to serve. But what about the religious beliefs of those clients? Even schoolchildren know that the Bill of Rights prevents the state from showing favor to one religion over another. Why should her religion be favored over mine? I have faith that if we keep asking these basic questions, eventually the ground will shift, and our religious freedoms — and the responsibilities of those who don’t share them to accept and tolerate them — will be impossible to ignore.
Steven Paulikas (@stevenpaulikas) is an Episcopal priest and the rector of All Saints’ Church in Park Slope in Brooklyn.
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