On June 26, the Supreme Court ruled in a 5-4 decision that bans on same-sex marriage are unconstitutional, extending marriage rights to same-sex couples in all 50 states. The implications for our nation are enormous, with immediate effects for same-gender couples and potential implications for religious liberty.
Effective immediately, same-gender couples can marry and have their marriages recognized everywhere in the nation. Legal recognition of marriages carries with it a host of legal rights. Among the many benefits now available to all same-gender couples are:
• Social Security benefits from a deceased spouse
• Bereavement leave for the death of a spouse
• Family medical leave to care for a sick spouse
• Hospital visitation rights
• The right to apply for family unification for immigrants
• The right to divorce, including legal assistance with determining property division, child support, custody and alimony
• Joint home or auto insurance
• Health insurance coverage for partners
• Protection from having to testify against each other in court
• Joint tax returns and certain tax benefits
• The right to inherit property if the spouse dies without a will
Clearly the impact is enormous for the LGBTQ community. But what about for those who oppose same-gender marriage? Will the decision have an impact on religious freedom, which is also a fundamental right guaranteed by the Constitution?
Justice Anthony Kennedy addressed the question of religious freedom in the majority opinion, saying while religiously motivated opposition to same-gender marriage should not be "enacted law and public policy," an "open and searching debate" should continue between the two views.
"Many who deem same-sex marriage to be wrong reach that conclusion based on decent and honorable religious or philosophical premises, and neither they nor their beliefs are disparaged here. ... It must be emphasized that religions, and those who adhere to religious doctrines, may continue to advocate with utmost, sincere conviction that, by divine precepts, same-sex marriage should not be condoned. The First Amendment ensures that religious organizations and persons are given proper protection as they seek to teach the principles that are so fulfilling and so central to their lives and faiths, and to their own deep aspirations to continue the family structure they have long revered," he stated.
The dissenting justices, however, felt this language was not sufficient to protect the religious liberty that is a bedrock principle of our nation.
Chief Justice John Roberts objected, saying, "The majority graciously suggests that religious believers may continue to 'advocate' and 'teach' their views of marriage. The First Amendment guarantees, however, the freedom to 'exercise' religion. Ominously, that is not a word the majority uses."
Justice Samuel Alito also predicted challenges to religious liberty.
"I assume that those who cling to old beliefs will be able to whisper their thoughts in the recesses of their homes, but if they repeat those views in public, they will risk being labeled as bigots and treated as such by governments, employers and schools. ... By imposing its own views on the entire country, the majority facilitates the marginalization of the many Americans who have traditional ideas," he wrote.
So what are some of the situations in which the right to free exercise of religion might conflict with the right to marry? Instances in which tax-exempt status or eligibility for federal grants could be jeopardized by the exercise of religious beliefs include:
• Clergy asked to perform same-sex weddings
• Religious institutions asked to host same-sex weddings
• Parochial schools refusing to hire staff in same-sex marriages
• A religious college providing married student housing only to heterosexual couples
• A religious adoption agency placing children only with parents of the opposite sex
What does all this mean for those who value diversity and inclusion? Must relief for one marginalized group mean that another is pushed toward the margins?
Our core message at the Diversity Council has long been that we must treat others with respect even when we disagree — not that we must all agree. Diversity of thought and belief is just as central as diversity of skin color or national origin. Adherents of religions opposing same-gender marriage must treat members of the LGBTQ community with respect, and they deserve the same respect in return.
The rapid change in public opinion regarding gay marriage often has meant lately that any opposition is vilified, no matter how respectfully expressed. A desire for tolerance, which is healthy for a pluralistic society, may quickly turn to intolerance if taken to extremes. Shutting down the voices of those we disagree with is not the mark of an inclusive and civil society.
We must continue to work toward a community that values religious diversity and protects freedom of expression, while still safeguarding the legal rights and dignity of LGBTQ individuals.