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Becket Fund lists seven areas to watch where freedom could be impactedcomment (0)

September 19, 2013


The rights of religious groups or individuals that object to same-sex “marriage” continue to clash with those pursued by gay rights advocates. Now the fight that started at state ballot boxes and in courtrooms has moved to floral shops, bakeries and photo studios.

As churches are concerned about the potential of lawsuits, some are changing their bylaws to explicitly reflect their views on traditional man-woman marriage.

A bakery in Gresham, Ore., owned by a Christian family, under investigation by state officials for refusing to bake a wedding cake for a lesbian couple, decided to close its doors. And in August, the New Mexico Supreme Court ruled that photographers could not refuse to shoot gay wedding ceremonies even though the state does not officially recognize gay “marriage.” The court ruled that declining to photograph a gay wedding was similar to declining to work at an interracial wedding.

Many of the legal skirmishes are not directly tied to federal recognition of gay “marriages” after the Supreme Court’s decision striking down most of the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA). Instead the fights largely revolve around state and local anti-discrimination ordinances.

Upcoming battles include whether religious opposition to same-sex “marriage” constitutes discrimination and what happens when a discrimination claim bumps up against an individual’s or institution’s religious freedom. Many cases are still being resolved:

The lawyer who represents the owners of a Colorado bakery say they could face a year in prison for refusing to make a cake for a gay wedding.

A Kentucky county commission sided with a gay rights group in a discrimination complaint in 2012 after a Christian printer declined to print T-shirts for a gay pride festival.

A florist in Richland, Wash., who refused to provide flowers for a same-sex wedding launched a countersuit against the state attorney general, who sued her for violating the state’s Consumer Protection Act.

Alabama Attorney General Luther Strange said he is “very troubled” by the cases and “the judicial ideology they represent.”

“No government should be able to compel people of faith to compromise their religious beliefs as the price of citizenship,” Strange said. “I hope that the United States Supreme Court steps in to correct these abuses.”

But the rulings will have no direct impact in Alabama, he said. “The Alabama Constitution provides greater protection for religious liberty than the federal Constitution and most state constitutions.”

The Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, a Washington-based religious freedom law firm, issued a brief on areas where religious freedom could be impacted by the DOMA ruling, outlining seven:

Public accommodation laws 

Many religious institutions provide services beyond their congregations that are considered “public accommodation,” such as health care, counseling, child care, education, wedding facilities and adoption services. Some fear that a lack of explicit conscience protections could open the doors to lawsuits.

Housing discrimination

Courts in some states have required landlords to allow unmarried cohabitating couples as tenants despite the landlords’ religious objections. A federal recognition of marriage gives same-sex couples a strong standing to access housing under anti-discrimination laws.

Employment discrimination laws

Currently 21 states and the District of Columbia prohibit discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation; most state laws include an exemption for religious organizations. A federal law to make anti-gay discrimination illegal nationwide has lagged in Congress for 20 years.

Now the question is: If a gay man or lesbian is fired for being gay, and that person’s “marriage” is now recognized by the federal government, does anything change? Does a federally recognized “marriage” offer greater protection in discrimination claims?

Government facilities access

Access to government facilities, such as schools, parks and other spaces, could become challenging for some who oppose same-sex “marriage.” For instance, the Boy Scouts have lost leases to campgrounds, parks and a government building headquarters and lost the right to participate in a charitable payroll deduction program.

Maintaining licenses or accreditation

As many governments would require all state marriages to be treated equally, some worry about loss of licenses or accreditation. Many cite the case where Catholic Charities in Boston and San Francisco shut down adoption services because the agencies refused to comply with anti-discrimination laws and place children with same-sex couples. Religious colleges and universities also fear loss of accreditation if they oppose same-sex “marriage.”

Government grants and contracts qualifications and tax exemptions

As many religious institutions seek grants and contracts for services, some see a tension between providing services and receiving government funding. Some also are concerned about the possibility of state or local tax exemption challenges or the ability to apply for government funding.

Educational and employment opportunities

The decision could continue to impact government workers and students at public universities. Julea Ward, a master’s in counseling student at Eastern Michigan University, told her professors she could not help gay and lesbian clients with their same-sex relationships. She was expelled for violating the school’s anti-discrimination policy and given $75,000 in a settlement.

At least 12 Massachusetts justices of the peace have resigned because they declined to facilitate same-sex “marriages.” 

(RNS, TAB)

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