The protections for faith-based groups in New York's new gay marriage law are getting mixed reviews from religious and traditional-values groups, with critics saying the provisions open the way to a "Pandora's box" of lawsuitsfrom gay-rights activists.
But others say the religious exemptions are robust, and could be used as a model for other states considering similar legislation. New York is the sixth and largest state to date to legalize same-sex marriage.
To date, the most public religious impact of the Marriage Equality Act is the case of Barbara MacEwen, the longtime town clerk in Volney, N.Y.
Citing religious and moral objections, Ms. MacEwen asked to have the town's deputy clerk sign gay marriage licenses instead of herself. A state senator from another district responded by suggesting that Ms. MacEwen quit her job if she couldn't carry out her duties under the new law. She quickly agreed to sign all licenses.
This episode raised concerns that individuals with traditional values will not protected by the law's religious exemptions, public policy observers said.
Religious liberty "is suffering the death of a thousand cuts," said Charles A. Donovan, who studies religion and civil society at the Heritage Foundation.
Gay marriage laws, as well as ones that forbid discrimination based on sexual orientation, are creating an environment in which people who view traditional marriage as something "sacred, natural and protectable" are being put "on par" with people who are racial bigots, Mr. Donovan said.
The New York gay marriage law's religious exemptions are "a complete and total fraud," said Paul Atanasio, an officer of the Conservative Party of New York State (CPNYS).
A fundamental precept of the Catholic faith is that "marriage was given to us ... as a sacrament by our Lord Jesus Christ," he said. The gay rights movement is "chomping at the bit" to "neutralize and destroy the church" over this belief, and "I am telling you this is a Pandora's box of litigation and lawsuits, which are going to go on ad infinitum."
The CPNYS, whose support helped give Republicans a majority in the New York Senate, was among the groups urging the legislators not to take up gay marriage. However, at least two Republicans said they were able to vote for it because of the religious exemptions.
"As an attorney, I analyzed the legislation and concluded that the amendments provide critical exemptions for religious institutions. Passage of this bill now, rather than later, ensures that these protections be included," said New York state Sen. Mark Grisanti, a Catholic who had campaigned in opposition to gay marriage.
Religious leaders lamented these and other votes for gay marriage.
Not only does the gay marriage law "eliminate marriage's very essence" of binding a man and woman together, it sets up a platform for officials "to retaliate against" those who continue to uphold "these basic truths" about marriage, said Bishop Salvatore J. Cordileone, chairman of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.
The "actual legal effect" of the religious exemptions "will have to be scrutinized," but "exemptions of any kind never justify redefining marriage," the bishop said.
The Catholic Church already has felt the effects of gay marriage laws: Catholic Charities abandoned its adoption and foster care services in Boston and the District of Columbia rather than place foster children with same-sex couples.
The Mormon church, which has supported traditional marriage efforts across the nation, was circumspect about New York's new law.
While specific church operations in New York are unlikely to be affected, "We do think there are fundamental religious liberty issues at stake that need to be thoroughly discussed and debated across the country," said Dale Jones, a spokesman for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
The Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations of America (OU) lamented the passage of gay marriage in New York, but also expressed gratitude for the "robust" religious exemptions.
This is because of the clause in the law that protects the religious exemptions from changes down the line, said Nathan Diament, director of public policy at the OU.
This provision, which is not usually seen in legislation, "says that if any part of the law is struck down, then the whole law is void," Mr. Diament said. "So, in other words, if somebody wanted to sue to try to knock out the religious protections [and] they succeeded, then they would also succeed in undoing the legalization of same-sex marriage."
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