Religious Freedom and Fairness for All

A diverse coalition of faith communities, including The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, has filed an amicus brief with the United States Supreme Court to lend its voice on the coming same-sex marriage case. This article explains why the Church has joined the brief.

The United States Supreme Court will soon hear arguments about whether same-sex marriage is a constitutional right nationwide and whether individual states must recognize same-sex marriages from other states. The ruling is expected in late June.

Today, same-sex marriage is legal in 37 states. A mere 10 or 15 years ago, few would have predicted such a rapid transformation in our legal and social climate. And yet judging by the heated debate in this country about religious freedom and gay rights, the matter seems far from resolved.

To lend its voice on the matter before the Supreme Court, a diverse coalition of faith communities, including The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, recently filed an amicus brief with the court. Though the case is about the definition of marriage, the focus of the brief is on religious freedom and the many ways the two are connected.

Download Amicus Brief of Major Religious Organizations PDF

A few weeks ago, the state of Utah passed two bills that simultaneously protect religious freedom and ban discrimination against LGBT people in the areas of housing and employment. “Fairness for all” was the call around which all parties rallied. This compromise demonstrated that opposing viewpoints can come together to achieve agreeable ends. While the specifics of the Utah law may not translate into every locality around the country, it was the approach that was significant.  The Utah Legislature demonstrated that the tension between religious freedom and gay rights does not have to be a battle in which the victor takes all and the defeated get nothing. Instead, we can live together with our deepest differences.

So why would The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints support LGBT rights in housing and employment on the grounds of fairness for all but oppose same-sex marriage? 

First of all, the Church cannot and does not seek to force others — especially those outside the faith — to live their lives in a certain way. We bring our values to the public square and make our case through the same democratic channels available to everyone else. We can no more prohibit same-sex partnerships among the general population than we can mandate against heterosexual cohabitation before marriage. In a pluralistic society, we make space for the rights and opinions of others, persuasively argue for laws that uphold moral principles based on our understanding of the gospel of Jesus Christ and encourage our own members to live by those principles.

Yet, as explained in the amicus brief, the legalization of same-sex marriage across the country does far more than grant same-sex couples the right to the same benefits as heterosexual married couples. By redefining what marriage has been for most of human history, the court will impede the ability of religious people to participate fully as equal citizens in American civic life. 

We already have examples. Where same-sex marriage has been legalized in some states, for instance in Idaho and New Jersey, gay rights advocates have brought lawsuits and administrative proceedings in an attempt to force religious denominations to make their religious properties and facilities available to celebrate same-sex weddings.  

Further, according to the brief, if the Supreme Court also designates sexual orientation as a class deserving special protection, like race, then “religious believers could find their speech, association, and free-exercise rights diminished or denied in a variety of contexts, such as public education, employment, public accommodations, and professional certification.”

Such restrictions are already happening. California judges will soon be banned from joining the Boy Scouts or any other nonreligious youth group that espouses traditional morality. The accreditation of Gordon College is being challenged because its honor code prohibits “sexual relations outside of marriage and homosexual practice.” A counseling student in Michigan was expelled from her program when she respectfully requested that a gay client be referred to one of numerous other counselors in the nearby area. A pluralistic society that shows true respect and fairness for everyone would not compel or coerce these individuals and entities to betray their religious beliefs and conscience.

Moreover, the special status of sexual orientation could, maintains the brief, “suppress and marginalize traditional religious views on sexuality and those who hold them, generating legal, bureaucratic, and social conflicts with a wide and unpredictable range of religious interests.” Essentially, religious beliefs in traditional sexual morality could come to be equated with racism.

The brief states: “The Constitution marks a wiser course by leaving the people free to decide the great marriage debate through their State democratic institutions. Allowing all citizens an equal voice in shaping their common destiny is the only way the diverse views of a free people can be respected on this matter of profound political, social, and religious importance. That is the only way this issue can be resolved without inflicting grave harm on millions of religious believers and their cherished beliefs and institutions.”

Having courts resolve these complex social issues is a far more troublesome path than having them resolved by the people themselves through the legislative processes in their own backyards. Courts can only rule on the cases before them. Consequently, their rulings provide no room for compromise. By definition, one party wins and the other loses. The result is often polarization, animosity and alienation of one side or another. What is truly needed is a process that allows for give and take, reasonable accommodation and mutual respect. By joining in the amicus brief, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is arguing that “fairness for all” is much better accomplished in legislatures than in the courts.

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