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?


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Posted by 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.


  1. Indeed, the mere possibility of such developments suggests that gay marriage is less about “freedom” than it is about *force* (something implied by the term ‘gay marriage’ itself — a term that would be completely redundant were it as ‘natural’ as folks suppose).

    For the state to get its hands dirty out of some kind of arbitrary, token, interest-group hug-fest is bound to result in the types of things conservative Christians are fearing (State discrimination against the anti-gay marriage wedding planner). My goodness how backwards it all is.

    George Weigel does a nice job of outlining this in his piece today:

    “The task of a just state is to recognize and support this older, prior social institution; it is not to attempt its redefinition. To do the latter involves indulging the totalitarian temptation that lurks within all modern states: the temptation to remanufacture reality.”


  2. I think this is a good observation. Most of the rhetoric in support of gay marriage is of the “why do you care?” or “how does it hurt you?” variety. But when you assert (and then codify) something as a RIGHT, it’s really only a matter of time before it becomes discrimination to feel otherwise, in exactly the ways you’re suggesting.

    This may seem, at first blush, like a “slippery slope” argument, but it’s really not: it’s simply where the logic of the rhetoric inevitably leads. There’s no slope at all: it’s a straight line from one to the other.

    I think the larger issue, however, isn’t really about legal rights, it’s about societal acceptance. I can’t imagine the desire here is for a piece of paper so much as the same recognition and acceptance that heterosexual marriage enjoys. But, of course, you can’t legislate that. And I think anyone who thinks homosexuality will be accepted by people simply because of laws like this has completely misunderstood the issue.


  3. Matt: I share your concerns about what the New York decision on same-sex marriage will mean for religious liberties, but I wonder if this focus on religious liberties by conservative Christians is an admission of defeat. Have we lost the public debate on marriage? Were our arguments or rhetoric or witness not enough to uphold the traditional practice of marriage?


    1. What christian witness do you think is upholding the traditional practice of marriage? The American christian witness that I see around me is get married, get divorced, get remarried by getting squeezed into an exception clause. Rinse. Repeat.

      The evangelical practice of remarriage does far more to harm traditional marriage than anything homosexual “marriage” has done.


  4. With all respect to others who have left comments, unless you operate a business that is held open to the general public (e.g. restaurant, amusement park, museum), or you are engaged in business that that are otherwise regulated (e.g. medical practice, law practice) and therefore subject to additional regulations that may include anti-discrimination rules, you are permitted to pick and choose whomever you wish to do business with. If you are a private caterer and you don’t want to cater a gay wedding, you have a right to refuse the business. The majority of these fears that Christian-owned businesses will be going out of business left and right are simply untrue.


  5. What will Christian judges/justices of the peace do if they have to administer gay “marriage”?


  6. How exactly does someone get sued for turning down a client as a wedding planner? I mean, I’m sure that it must happen because obviously there’s a reason people are afraid of it, but how can someone win in the legal system for turning down business. Do you think it’s a bit of hype or one nut case judge + one nutcase lawyer + a pissed off couple = a horror story SSM-objectors now fear. All I’m saying is turning down business doesn’t sound like grounds to sue, there’s just no proof.


  7. Matthew Lee Anderson June 27, 2011 at 8:44 pm

    Thanks, all, for the great feedback. Couple quick notes in reply:

    1) @Christopher, it’s not an admission of defeat. Rather, it’s continuing to pound the drumbeat of religious liberty issues against what could be a naive acceptance of it within certain sectors. Which is to say, religious liberty might just be a winning argument.

    2) @Seth, I think NY state law is at best ambiguous on this. Here’s relevant language: ” 13. It shall be an unlawful discriminatory practice (i) for any person to boycott or blacklist, or to refuse to buy from, sell to or trade with, or otherwise discriminate against any person, because of the race, creed, color, national origin, sexual orientation, military status, sex, or disability of such person, or of such person’s partners, members, stockholders, directors, officers, managers, superintendents, agents, employees, business associates, suppliers or customers, or (ii) for any person willfully to do any act or refrain from doing any act which enables any such person to take such action. This subdivision shall not apply to:

    (a) Boycotts connected with labor disputes; or

    (b) Boycotts to protest unlawful discriminatory practices.”

    I checked with a lawyer friend before posting this, and he noted that the range of businesses that are “regulated” is far broader than medicine or law, and that what counts as a “public” business is considerably broader in current case law than you grant. This is my thought, but a case might proceed by way of negation: only those organizations and institutions that get designated as “private” in the legislation are exempt from critiques, and small businesses are not included.

    One other thing to note: Republicans pushed for language exempting individual businesses and it was rejected.

    3) @James,



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