North Carolina voters decided last night that the State is constitutionally required to nullify a significant number of marriages performed by churches, synagogues and other religious organizations as well as those performed by no religious organization at all. The reason: a significant number of other churches in North Carolina do not recognize such marriages.
North Carolina’s “marriage” amendment is yet one more instance in which government is used by one group of religious organizations to deny freedom of faith and conscience to others. North Carolina lawyers, clergy and other leading citizens should have put a stop to the measure before it ever reached the voting booth, but failed to do so.
In our Christian churches we pray, deliberate and decide – or sometimes don’t decide -- a wide range of issues. Our fellow citizens of the Jewish, Hindu, Muslim, Buddist and other faiths do the same. There are some issues about which we agree, and others about which we disagree. Religious freedom is our right to disagree. We are accountable to our conscience, to our fellow congregants, and ultimately to our Maker. For these decisions – even if they are wrong decisions – we are not accountable to our government.
There was a time when virtually all Christian churches believed that only half the human race was qualified to serve as priests and bishops. Some churches still adhere to this view, whereas others do not (the head bishop of the Episcopal Church USA is a woman and most Protestant churches also allow women clergy of all ranks). This is a topic that is none of government’s business. Protestants as well as Catholics should object strenuously, for example, if there is ever an attempt to use employment discrimination laws to tell the Catholic Church that it must employ women priests.
There was a time when most Christian churches had a dim view of birth control. Most Protestant denominations have changed their mind (religious freedom is in part the freedom to change one’s mind). Leading Catholic theologians and laypersons continue to debate the issue. This again is an issue that is none of the government’s business. Lawyers and judges made it clear in the 1960’s that the State of Connecticut could not take sides and prohibit the sale of birth control. Protestant and well as Catholic lawyers should also tell the federal government that it cannot require the Catholic Church and its affiliates to buy birth control.
There was a time when many Christian denominations insisted that marriages only be between persons who were members, or agreed to become members, of the same church. Interfaith marriage was frowned upon. Some churches to varying degrees still adhere to this viewpoint. Government, however, has no business refusing to recognize interfaith marriages simply because a particular religious sect disapproves. Government also has no business trying to require a church to recognize – or allow its facilities to be used to celebrate -- an interfaith marriage of which the church does not approve.
Lawyers, with the support of clergy and other leading citizens, have worked hard to protect these and other liberties in America.
Now we get to the topic of same sex marriage. This again was once an issue about which almost all Christian churches agreed. Jewish rabbis also refused to celebrate same sex marriages. Now, however, some mainline Protestant denominations have changed their mind, and some rabbis also celebrate same sex marriages. Other churches disagree and continue to refuse to recognize same sex marriages.
Once again, lawyers and clergy working together should assure that government does not take sides but instead respects our right to work these issues out ourselves. No one side in this debate has the right to use government to force its view on the other. Laws are still on the books that reflect a once near universal view condemning same sex marriages, but that view no longer is universal. Lawyers and clergy should steadfastly oppose efforts to create constitutional impediments to the repeal of such laws. Legislators should consider whatever steps are necessary to assure that all duly consecrated marriages, as well as those not consecrated by any religious authority, are recognized by the state. Lawyers and clergy should also oppose any government effort to require a church or other religious organization to celebrate or recognize a same sex marriage, or any other marriage, that it does not want to.
It is ironic that the mainline Protestant churches to which many of our founding father’s belonged will bear the brunt of this denial of religious liberty. It is these churches – along with many Jewish congregations and some other religious groups – that now may wish to change their mind about same sex marriage. And they should be free to do so, in part because the founding fathers protected the religious liberties of all denominations when they founded a Country with no established church and no right of government to interfere with the free exercise of religion.
When a “marriage amendment” comes up for a vote here in Minnesota in November, many lawyers and clergy will work strenuously to see that it is defeated. Many of our Protestant churches and Jewish groups oppose it; many Catholic laypersons also oppose it. Most of our law faculties oppose it, at some law schools unanimously. Unlike North Carolina, Minnesota was not one of the original thirteen colonies to fight for liberty in the 1770s, but hopefully this fall we will demonstrate a better understanding of what the continuing fight for liberty is all about.