In the wake of the Supreme Court’s decision declaring same-sex marriage a constitutional right, the battleground is shifting to religious freedom and whether religious people and/or churches can be compelled to sanction behavior contrary to their religious beliefs.
The court’s 5-4 ruling on Friday directs states to grant marriage licenses to same-sex couples, but doesn’t address the actions of churches or other private groups. Conservatives and religious leaders say the decision is certain to embolden liberal activists and accelerate legal clashes between supporters of gay marriage and religious groups who don’t accept same-sex marriage.
“We’re going to see pretty quickly what Pandora’s box is, because Christians are going to be told — are already being told — that they have no legal right to not participate,” said Gary Bauer, president of the nonprofit group American Values. “The early signs are not good.”
As a result of the ruling, some of the dissenting Supreme Court justices said they foresee new legal challenges related to religious liberty in three particular areas: the tax-exempt status of religious organizations, the unwillingness of some churches and individuals to perform same-sex marriages and gay adoption.
Justice Samuel Anthony Alito Jr. said he’s concerned that the ruling “will be used to vilify Americans who are unwilling to assent to the new orthodoxy.”
Justice Clarence Thomas wrote of the looming legal battles: “In our society, marriage is not simply a governmental institution; it is a religious institution as well. It appears all but inevitable that the two will come into conflict, particularly as individuals and churches are confronted with demands to participate in and endorse civil marriages between same-sex couples.”
Others predict legal challenges over issues such as whether a Christian university that provides housing for traditional married couples could be required to provide it for same-sex couples as well.
The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops called the ruling a “tragic error” and vowed to continue preaching the church’s doctrine on marriage as the permanent union of a man and a woman to their parishes.
“Jesus Christ, with great love, taught unambiguously that from the beginning marriage is the lifelong union of one man and one woman. As Catholic bishops, we follow our Lord and will continue to teach and to act according to this truth,” Archbishop Joseph E. Kurtz, president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, said in a statement.
Leith Anderson, president of the National Association of Evangelicals, said the court has changed the legal definition of marriage, not the biblical truth about marriage.
“As we respect a legal ruling with which we do not agree, we ask others to respect our faith and practices even when they disagree with us,” he said.
Within hours of the court’s decision, some religious leaders were vowing they’ll never perform same-sex weddings.
“Those of us who believe that marriage was ordained by God and reserved for one man and one woman, will not abide by this ruling,” said Pastor Rick Scarborough, president of Vision America Action in Nacogdoches, Texas. “We will denounce this practice in our services, we will not teach it in our schools, we will refuse to officiate at this type of wedding, and we will not accept any encroachments on our First Amendment rights. The Supreme Court’s decision to redefine marriage from its biblical origins is offensive to millions.”
Rep. Joseph R. Pitts, Pennsylvania Republican, said the ruling “will lead to grave infringements of religious freedom across the United States.”
“Every American should be free to affirm the truth about marriage without being punished by the government,” Mr. Pitts said. “In the wake of this decision, we must ensure that no governmental entity is ever permitted to discriminate against Americans because they affirm the truth about marriage. No one should be forced to choose between their faith and their livelihood.”
Liberal Catholics praised the decision. Christopher J. Hale, executive director of Catholics in Alliance for the Common Good, called the ruling “a moment of great joy for many Catholics” and said the church should seek forgiveness for discriminating against gays.
Secularists agreed, calling the traditional religious definition of marriage irrelevant.
“Our country is finally moving beyond outdated, religious definitions of marriage,” said Roy Speckhardt, executive director of the American Humanist Association. “This is a victory for all LGBTQ Americans and allies who fought vigorously against discrimination.”
Such anti-religious sentiments worry David Lane of the American Renewal Project, who is training pastors nationwide in how to run for office. He predicted legal attacks on churches and other groups who oppose same-sex marriage.
“They are going to say to churches, ‘If you are going to have a tax-exempt status, you are going to perform homosexual marriage wedding[s], and if you don’t, we are going to remove your tax-deductible status,’” Mr. Lane said. “They are going to say to Christian radio, ‘Homosexual marriage is the law of the land determined by the Supreme Court. If you don’t agree with that, then you are going to lose your FCC licenses.’ This is where it is headed — easily it is. I am convinced of it.”
Members of Congress, led by Sen. Mike Lee, Utah Republican, and Rep. Raul R. Labrador, Idaho Republican, have introduced a First Amendment Defense Act, which would prevent the federal government from discriminating against anyone who believes marriage is the union of one man and one woman.
Congress and state governments should “move immediately” to enact First Amendment Defense Acts, said Brian Brown, president of the National Organization for Marriage.
Jennifer Roback Morse, founder and president of the Ruth Institute, said states must also pass laws to require “the genetic parents” be named on “every birth certificate, for every child,” so vital information will not be hidden or falsified from any person.
The nation needs “the strongest possible religious freedom bills” and strong state-based family policy partners, said Tom Minnery, president of chief executive of CitizenLink.com.
Churches should “adopt a clear statement of faith regarding human sexuality and marriage,” clarify that church weddings “are Christian worship services” and adopt a policy restricting use of ministry facilities to the ministry’s religious purposes, said Tim Wildmon, president of the American Family Association.
“Although the ongoing debate about marriage now enters a new phase, it is far from over,” said Jim Campbell, senior legal counsel for Alliance Defending Freedom.
Travis Weber, director of the Center for Religious Liberty at the Family Research Council, said although the court’s ruling doesn’t “implicate” churches directly, it “will lend support to efforts to sideline and marginalize traditional religious beliefs.”
One pastor, Steve Smothermon of Legacy Church in Albuquerque, New Mexico, even said he’d rather go to jail than preside at a same-sex wedding.
“We want to help people, but we are not going to be forced by the government and society or the politically correct to say we are going to believe in it,” he told CNN.com. “If they said, ‘Listen, pastor, we are going to put you in jail if you don’t honor this,’ I am going to say, ‘Then put me in jail.’”
President Obama, who praised the ruling, said supporters of same-sex marriage should recognize that many others don’t accept it.
“I know that Americans of good will continue to hold a wide range of views on this issue,” Mr. Obama said. “Opposition in some cases has been based on sincere and deeply held beliefs. All of us who welcome [the ruling] should be mindful of that fact, recognize different viewpoints [and] revere our deep commitment to religious freedom.”
Mr. Bauer said the president’s words amounted to “a great laugh line.”
“His administration has aggressively attacked religious liberty,” Mr. Bauer said. “He’s playing rhetorical games again. There is nothing his administration has done that should give anybody any sense of ease by that statement.”
Some religious leaders took similar heart in Justice Anthony M. Kennedy’s words that religious people “may continue to advocate with utmost, sincere conviction that, by divine precepts, same-sex marriage should not be condoned.”
But Andrea Lafferty, president of the Traditional Values Coalition, said those words meant people can “advocate” for traditional marriage but “cannot operate according to those beliefs.” Instead, she said, First Amendment religious freedoms will surely be pitted against the ruling’s newly established “right to dignity.”
The high court’s opinion “gives lip service to the rights of people of faith,” said Maureen Ferguson of The Catholic Association. Already Catholic Charities agencies have been forced out of adoption, and Christians who are bakers, florists or fire chiefs have suffered “merely for respectful expression of their views,” she said.
• Seth McLaughlin contributed to this report.