January 16 is Religious Freedom Day in the United States, affirmed by President Barack Obama in the customary proclamation last Friday.
However, not everyone in the US is as sure as the President that his administration “continues to stand with all who are denied the ability to choose, express, or live their faith freely”. Just the day before, an open letter signed by leaders of some of the largest religious communities in the country voiced their concern that religious freedom is at risk in America because of the campaign to change the definition and meaning of marriage.
The letter warns that there is more at stake than clergymen possibly being forced to perform same-sex “weddings”:
Some posit that the principal threat to religious freedom posed by same-sex “marriage” is the possibility of government’s forcing religious ministers to preside over such “weddings,” on pain of civil or criminal liability. While we cannot rule out this possibility entirely, we believe that the First Amendment creates a very high bar to such attempts.
Instead, we believe the most urgent peril is this: forcing or pressuring both individuals and religious organizations—throughout their operations, well beyond religious ceremonies—to treat same-sex sexual conduct as the moral equivalent of marital sexual conduct. There is no doubt that the many people and groups whose moral and religious convictions forbid same-sex sexual conduct will resist the compulsion of the law, and church-state conflicts will result.
The effects would be very far-reaching — with religious people and groups facing civil penalties for resisting new laws. And there are already examples of how existing faith-based services would be affected:
For example, in New Jersey, the state cancelled the tax-exempt status of a Methodist-run boardwalk pavilion used for religious services because the religious organization would not host a same-sex “wedding” there. San Francisco dropped its $3.5 million in social service contracts with the Salvation Army because it refused to recognize same-sex “domestic partnerships” in its employee benefits policies. Similarly, Portland, Maine, required Catholic Charities to extend spousal employee benefits to same-sex “domestic partners” as a condition of receiving city housing and community development funds.
The religious leaders conclude:
Therefore, we encourage all people of good will to protect marriage as the union between one man and one woman, and to consider carefully the far-reaching consequences for the religious freedom of all Americans if marriage is redefined. We especially urge those entrusted with the public good to support laws that uphold the time-honored definition of marriage, and so avoid threatening the religious freedom of countless institutions and citizens in this country. Marriage and religious freedom are both deeply woven into the fabric of this nation.
May we all work together to strengthen and preserve the unique meaning of marriage and the precious gift of religious freedom.
Finally, there was a very positive signal from the US Supreme Court on religious freedom last week. In a unanimous decision on the Hosanna-Tabor Church v. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission case, the court ruled that churches and other religious groups must be free to choose and dismiss their leaders without government interference. Watch for more about this decision in MercatorNet.