- The Washington Times - Sunday, December 3, 2006

A national religious-freedom group has chosen the same-sex “marriage” case to be argued today in Maryland’s highest court to file its first legal argument.

The Beckett Fund, a nonprofit legal group supporting religious freedoms, argues that legalized same-sex “marriage” could result in civil suits against churches that refuse to marry same-sex couples or refuse to hire homosexual employees.

“It’s such a controversial issue that we weren’t going to move until we were certain the threats were real and pervasive,” said Roger T. Severino, a lawyer with the District-based group. “And now we are confident they are.”

The group also says the government might strip such churches of their tax-exempt status and of their power to license marriages.

The case before the Maryland Court of Appeals comes from a lower court ruling in January, in which a judge decided a 1973 statute defining marriage as between a man and woman violated the state constitution. The ruling by Baltimore Circuit Judge M. Brooke Murdock was stayed until the appeals court could hear the case. The appeals court ruling is expected in the coming weeks.

The Becket Fund — which has defended Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus, Jews and Protestant Christians in the United States and abroad — filed one of nearly two dozen “friend of the court” — or amicus curiae — briefs in the closely watched case.

The court may consider arguments presented in such briefs, but is not required to do so.

An attorney for the 19 plaintiffs, who filed their lawsuit in 2004, called Mr. Severino’s claim a “false alarm bell.”

“There are sometimes tensions between religious liberty and nondiscrimination mandates,” said Kenneth Y. Choe, an attorney for the plaintiffs and the American Civil Liberties Union’s lesbian and gay rights project. “Regardless of what happens in this lawsuit, that tension already exists, and there exists a legal framework for how to resolve it.”

Mr. Severino disagrees, saying the existing definition of marriage as between one man and one woman pervades the law of the land.

“The issue is so fundamental it’s almost hard to see the intricate web of connections that marriage has with religious liberty and the thousands of government regulations that affect religious institutions,” Mr. Severino said.

Churches or pastors also could be penalized for teaching sacred texts that state homosexuality is a sin, the Becket brief states.

Dan Furmansky, executive director of the Equality Maryland lobbying group, said churches would not be sued or prosecuted for refusing to “marry” homosexuals.

“We’re not talking about forcing clergy to recognize marriages they don’t want to,” he said. “Of course there is a vast body of clergy that won’t provide weddings for same-sex couples, and that’s fine.”

The Becket brief cites a Colorado woman’s 2002 suit against the Episcopal Church that fired her on scriptural grounds for practicing homosexuality. The suit was unsuccessful, but was offered as proof that churches that take action based on their holy texts will face lawsuits.

“It will be ultimately up to the courts as to whether or not they will respect the First Amendment and protect religious liberty when it comes in conflict with gay rights,” Mr. Severino said.

“But recent precedents don’t give us a high level of comfort.”

The Becket Fund also pointed to a Swedish pastor who was imprisoned for one month after he preached that homosexuality is sinful, though the country’s highest court overturned his conviction.

One year ago, the Becket Fund held a conference in which scholars for and against same-sex “marriage” concluded that legalizing the practice would put it on a “collision course” with religious liberties.

Chai R. Feldblum, a law professor at Georgetown University who called herself “part of an inner group of public intellectual movement leaders committed to advancing [homosexual] equality in this country,” took part and wrote a paper for the conference.

“We are in a zero-sum game,” she wrote. “A gain for one side necessarily entails a corresponding loss for the other side.”

Voters in 27 states, including seven in the most recent election, have voted to define marriage in their state constitutions as between a man and a woman only. In November, Arizona became the first state in which residents voted against a ban on same-sex “marriage.”

In July, five state courts and one federal court issued rulings that upheld traditional marriage laws similar to those in Maryland.

To date, the only state to legalize same-sex “marriage” is Massachusetts by court fiat. After Maryland, pending right-to-“marry” lawsuits remain in California, Connecticut and Iowa.

The Becket Fund is filing briefs in all of the remaining cases.

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