Nearly 40 religious leaders, including Catholic, evangelical, Jewish and Mormon figures, issued an open letter Thursday that argues that the battle against same-sex marriage is a fight on behalf of religious freedom.
"Marriage and religious freedom are both deeply woven into the fabric of this nation," clergy members wrote in their letter, "Marriage and Religious Freedom: Fundamental Goods That Stand or Fall Together." It calls on all Americans to promote and protect marriage "in its true definition."
The "most urgent peril" associated with legalizing same-sex unions is that religious individuals and organizations would be forced or pressured to treat same-sex sexual conduct as the moral equivalent of marital sexual conduct, they explained.
These conflicts would arise in countless ways, "because altering the civil definition of 'marriage' does not change one law, but hundreds, even thousands, at once," the clergy said. Already, religious people and groups are being labeled "bigots" and their activities and services punished or targeted because they believe marriage is only the union of one man and one woman.
"It is sad to admit that our culture has reached a point where such a statement is necessary, and yet it is for just such a time as this that the Lord has called the North American Lutheran Church into being, to be able to make such a stand and offer our support to this important cause," said the Rev. John F. Bradosky, bishop of the NALC, which was created in 2010 as a church body for "traditionally grounded" Lutherans.
"Marriage and religious liberty are at a crisis point in the United States. This letter is a sign of hope," said Cardinal-designate and New York Archbishop Timothy M. Dolan.
Separately, Pope Benedict XVI said in his New Year's address that the marriage of one man and one woman "is not a simple social convention, but rather the fundamental cell of every society." Policies that undermine marriage and the family "threaten human dignity and the future of humanity itself," the pontiff warned.
Religious leaders, however, are divided over gay marriage. Several denominations, including the Episcopal Church, Unitarian Universalist Association of Congregations and United Church of Christ, perform marriage ceremonies for gay couples. Gay rights groups, such as the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, which is holding its 24th annual equality convention in Baltimore later this month, and the Human Rights Campaign have extensive interfaith networks and supporters.
Gay marriage will be election issues this year in North Carolina, Minnesota and possibly Maine. There is also speculation that lawmakers in New Hampshire will overturn that state's right to gay marriage.
Meanwhile, officials in New Jersey, Washington state and Maryland have announced their intentions to push for gay marriage in those states.
In the courts, lawsuits are under way in California and in federal courts, where gay rights supporters seek to have the federal Defense of Marriage Act declared unconstitutional.
Among the signatories of the Jan. 12 letter on marriage and religious freedom are leaders of the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod, the Anglican Church in North America, the Church of Jesus of Latter-day Saints, Agudath Israel of America, the Salvation Army, National Association of Evangelicals, Assemblies of God, the Wesleyan Church, the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference and Church of the Nazarene.
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