Religious Liberty is a buzzword within conservative circles, with organizations like the National Organization for Marriage, Focus on the Family, and the designated hate groups the Family Research Council and the American Family Association, attempting to assert that granting full equality to LGBT people would infringe upon individual religious freedom. Though there can be a robust debate on this topic, the issues that such organizations bring up are more peripheral to the religious liberty issue (eg. A focus upon public accommodation and public financing of discriminatory organizations). Interestingly, though the Right screams about religious liberty, LBGT people and our allies are the ones, based upon their conservative religious logic, that have a more persuasive argument for religious liberty than those who oppose our full equality.
I will preface this discussion by saying that this is not a legal argument. In fact, I would assert that the Courts would probably find the following argument of governmental favoritism not especially persuasive. Yet, not all arguments that we have in our arsenal need to be arguments that are “legally powerful”. Instead, we can have arguments that are powerful in the moral force that they bring to the discussion. For as I like to tell people that I talk with about LGBT rights, our battle is not only for the legal equality of LGBT people, but instead is also for our full moral and social equality. The former, is important for our participation within the legal sphere and with our governments, yet the latter are important for our participation within our families and religious/ethnic communities. Only through an intense discussion of the latter, can we show our friends and family the hypocrisy that drives their animosity towards marriage equality.
Currently, in the vast majority of States, the only legally recognized marital relationship is between one man and one woman. This exclusionary definition of what marriage is has narrowed the definition of marriage to what certain religious sects believe. For example, the Southern Baptist Convention and the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints officially believe that marriage is between one man and one woman. On the opposite end of the spectrum, the Episcopal Church, Reformed and Conservative Judaism, and the Unitarian Universalists (just to name a few) perform and bless marriages between same-sex couples. On the surface, it would seem as though the Government has chosen to abide by the exclusionary SBC and LDS definition of marriage rather than the more inclusive and equal definition of marriage offered by the latter groups. And if you stopped here, that would be correct to an extent, yet not necessarily a powerful moral argument on how that harms religious liberty. Instead, we go must go further, and see what the Governments definition of marriage actually does.
Right now, a Southern Baptist minister will only marry a man and a woman. Thus, in theory, 100% of marriages that this minister performs as an agent of the State will be considered legal (yes, I know there are tiny flaws in this hypothetical, such as if one person is already married, but bear with me). On the other hand, a Conservative Rabbi will marry both heterosexual couple as well as homosexual couple. Yet when he marries the heterosexual couple, he is considered an agent of the State, yet when he marries the gay couple, he is not. The State is, in essence, telling the Rabbi that some of the marriage ceremonies performed and blessed by him are not “actual marriages”. The State is not telling this to the Baptist or LDS ministers, for their own religious definition of marriage lines up with what the Governments definition is, but it is telling the Rabbi and the Episcopal Priest what marriages that the State considers “actual marriages”.
You see, a large percentage of conservative opposition to marriage equality is religious in nature, with many believing that marriage is a religious institution established by God. If we accept this perspective of our conservative friends and family, that the underlying essence of marriage is religious, then it seems as though religion should be the main overseer of what is considered marriage – not the State. If that is the case, then the main thrust of the above argument – that the State is telling religious groups what is considered marriage – should be an anathema to these individuals. If not, and these religious conservatives stay stuck in their opposition to marriage equality for same-sex couples based upon these religious reasons, they are showing that they believe that the State should be an arm of the Church, enforcing their own religious dogma at the expense of others who believe differently.