Skip to main content

Religious Liberties and Gay Marriage in New York

June 27th, 2011 | 4 min read

By Matthew Lee Anderson

Gay marriage protester outside the Minnesota Senate chamberphoto © 2010 Fibonacci Blue | more info (via: Wylio)
The slow expansion of gay rights across the nation took a step forward late Friday night with the extension of marriage to gays and lesbians in New York.

While the decision was greeted by the gay and lesbian communities with celebration, conservative Christians welcomed the news by refocusing attention on the question of whether there will be conflict over religious liberties--a question which David Sessions suggests is nothing more than a specter:

The answer to the question—"what happens to the religious freedom of those who want to uphold biblical standards”—is answered in the text of the bill that passed last night: absolutely nothing.

I'm not convinced that the text of the bill actually resolves as much about religious liberties as David suggests.  There's an ambiguity in the question that needs resolving, as the  text of the bill clearly answers it for "those" clergymen and "those" benevolent organizations who may not want to rent out their meeting space.

I can't quite tell at this point whether religious adoption services like Catholic Charities will be affected at all by the change, so I'll leave that aside.

But what of the Christian wedding coordinator who is approached by a gay and lesbian couple to coordinate their wedding?  Because they are not a benevolent organization or clergy, they have no legal grounds to avoid lawsuit for discrimination if they turn the gay couple down.   The law provides no safeguards at all that those in the marriage industry with religious objections to gay marriage will be safe from lawsuits.

We might think that the business that make up the wedding industry--coordination, flowers, music--should not be allowed to discriminate against gays and lesbians for the same reason that restaurants are not allowed to discriminate against people on the basis of race.

But weddings can have a unique religious significance and are strongly symbolic.  For some people, providing the music, the flowers, or the cake will be seen as a granting of legitimacy on the wedding that undermines their Christian principles.*  I have friends in the wedding industry who have told me that they would not break their consciences on this point, and I for one do not blame them.  Religiously motivated conscientious objection may be unpopular, but the decision should not be subject to lawsuit or penalty.

Making such a distinction may prove difficult to implement, but that doesn't mean something like it won't be necessary at some point.  At a minimum, it means that at least for some small business owners and individuals, the implications for their religious liberties as providers of services for weddings are still very open.

Update: See also the excellent post by Mollie Ziegler Hemingway:

But that’s really only the tip of the iceberg — and probably the easiest conflicts to resolve — when it comes to discussions of religious liberty and gay rights. Will same-sex marriage laws impact the rights of religious organizations to place children for adoption as they see fit? What about Lutheran parochial schools that have faced civil rights lawsuits over their honor code? Will Muslim doctors have the right to refuse to do in vitro fertilization treatment on a woman in a lesbian marriage? Will an evangelical referring a patient to someone without religious qualms over same-sex marriage lose her job or license? What about the civil servants who have religious objections to same-sex marriage? Apart from wedding vendors, there are all sorts of other lines of work where individual religious liberty and religiously-motivated objections to same-sex marriage where the questions persist. What about adoption services, for instance? How might public school curriculum change? Will that pose a challenge for any public school teachers who are Muslim, Jewish or Christian?


Matthew Lee Anderson

Matthew Lee Anderson is the Founder and Lead Writer of Mere Orthodoxy. He is the author of Earthen Vessels: Why Our Bodies Matter to our Faith and The End of Our Exploring: A Book about Questioning and the Confidence of Faith. Follow him on Twitter or on Facebook.