Same sex marriage is one those issues that ignites the fury of the entire political spectrum. Many conservatives are keenly aware these days that demographic trends will soon render opposition to gay marriage obsolete. This appears to be not a matter of if, but when either the courts or a majority of Americans approve same-sex marriage in a lion’s share of states.
So the question is: How can social conservatives ensure that the impending legalization of gay marriage does not infringe upon their places of worship?
There is a dangerously presented false dichotomy where the gay marriage debate is concerned. Too often, people want to paint the issue as simply bigoted on one side or immoral on the other. There is, however, a third set of people who believe gay marriage is not a threat to their lives and is essentially already a political reality, but who wish to ensure that if it is ushered into law without trampling all over the religious liberties of those who might be less supportive.
Many conservatives have concluded that they do not want government to discriminate against gays, but neither do they want for example Christians to face discrimination from the state for their beliefs regarding sexuality or marriage. Many are dismissive of this threat, but it is a real concern for those Christians, and others, who do not want to see their churches being forced by government to accept or promote something they are diametrically opposed to.
At any rate, it should be a concern for all citizens to ensure the government is not in the business of forcing churches, mosques, or synagogues to accept, reject, marry, or divorce anyone.
Religious liberty is a sacred right of which virtually all Americans are supportive. And yet, recent trends use laws and regulatory practices to force churches and other religious institutions into engaging in actions with which they do not agree. It is not absurd to suggest that individuals, and yes, legislators, might seek to impose their will on churches and religious institutions in the case of gay marriage, too.
These are not new issues that need to be confronted for the first time. The issue of public acceptance of religious freedom versus state-sponsored promotion of particular religious beliefs is a conflict as old as our nation.
The section of the First Amendment that discusses religious liberty does not prohibit public practice of religion (as so many individuals are contending these days), but rather protects religions from the influence of government and citizens from persecution for religion reasons.
This does not mean that we are free to use the government to persecute individuals for irreligious reasons, either. Rather, it means that the state does not have a role to play in promoting particular religious beliefs, but should do nothing to stand in the way of religious practitioners and their beliefs.
Ezra Taft Benson, who served as both the Secretary of Agriculture under President Dwight Eisenhower and the 13th President of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, understood this lesson well,
“The Lord works from the inside out. The world works from the outside in. The world would take people out of the slums. Christ would take the slums out of people, and then they would take themselves out of the slums. The world would mold men by changing their environment. Christ changes men, who then change their environment. The world would shape human behavior, but Christ can change human nature.”
In the case of gay marriage, this is maybe a lesson social conservatives should implement: do not try to use the world to shape human behavior. Instead, they ought to use government as it was meant to be used: to protect the rights of the minority.
In this particular case, that means recognizing the will of the majority regarding gay marriage while also protecting churches, clergy, and the laity from governmental bullying. This means providing specific legislative protection against churches ever being forced to provide space for gay marriages under the auspices of equal treatment or anti-discrimination laws.
There is little to be gained by attempting to force churches and religious groups to provide services, goods, or equal access for gay marriages except for resentment and anger, which goes against everyone’s aims. There are reasonable, amiable, workable solutions for conservatives to seek when addressing their concerns over the legalization of gay marriage.