For religious freedom and LGBT rights, a year of decision

Jan 8, 2015

By Charles C. Haynes
Inside the First Amendment 

     The New Year begins much like the old year ended with bitter, emotional clashes between proponents of LGBT rights and religious objectors to same-sex marriage.

     When same-sex weddings commenced in Florida on January 6, several county clerks immediately announced that although required by law to issue marriage licenses to gay and lesbian couples, they will no longer perform marriages for anyone — gay or straight — to avoid participating in same-sex ceremonies.

     On the same day, the mayor of Atlanta, Georgia fired the chief of the city's Fire Rescue Department, Kelvin Cochran, for distributing to fellow workers a religious book Cochran wrote that includes harsh language condemning homosexuality.

     Meanwhile, lawmakers in many states are gearing up to introduce legislation carving out accommodations for religious objectors to gay marriage. That's because more than 70% of Americans now live in places where gay marriage is legal. And with a U.S. Supreme Court ruling on gay marriage on the near horizon, that number could soon be 100%.

     In many red statehouses, gay marriage opponents have the votes to pass religious accommodations — everything from conscience clauses for government workers to exemptions for religiously affiliated charities and for-profit wedding vendors.

     And in many blue states, gay marriage proponents have the votes to deny any religious accommodations beyond exemptions for clergy (who are already protected by the First Amendment).

     Now is the time — perhaps the last real opportunity — to seek common ground. Rather than a patchwork of state laws — some that go too far and some that don't go far enough — it would better serve the common good to agree on reasonable, targeted religious accommodations that strive to uphold religious freedom while simultaneously protecting LGBT rights.

     A good starting point would be for advocates on all sides to acknowledge that both liberty of conscience and equality are core American values deserving the highest possible level of protection.

     Protecting both values should mean, at the very least, ensuring that religious individuals and groups are fully protected to define religious marriage rites according to the doctrines of their faith. And it should also mean that LGBT people are fully protected from discrimination in the public square of America, including when same-sex couples seek legal protections that come with civil marriage.

     Within these guiding principles, it may be possible to find areas of agreement that strike a balance between religious freedom and non-discrimination in order to resolve conflicts and, as far as possible, protect both values on questions such as the following:

  • As part of their effort to end discrimination against LGBT students, a growing number of college and university campuses deny recognition to student religious groups with faith-based criteria for selecting their leaders. Should student religious groups be allowed to elect leaders based on eligibility requirements consistent with their beliefs, as long as their meetings are open to all?
  • In recent years, a number of wedding vendors have refused to serve same-sex weddings on religious grounds. Would it be possible to craft a narrowly tailored law that would provide accommodation for the religious convictions of small business owners with fewer than 15 employees — a law that would have the support of both sides?
  • Some religiously affiliated charities that receive government funds are ceasing to offer adoption services because they cannot in good conscience endorse same-sex marriage. Can we explore ways to accommodate these charities, at least in places where other service providers are readily available to same-sex couples?
  • In states without civil rights laws covering sexual orientation, can agreement be reached to enact legislation protecting LGBT people from discrimination while simultaneously passing limited accommodations for religious objectors to gay marriage?

     These are difficult questions that will require patient, thoughtful and, above all, civil dialogue by people of goodwill. Finding common ground won't be easy — and may not be possible. But for the sake of both upholding religious freedom and expanding equality, it's worth a try.

     After all, gay marriage is here to stay. Opponents of same-sex marriage — still over a third of the population — aren't going anywhere and neither are LGBT people. Beyond our differences, we are bound together as citizens of one nation committed to liberty and equality for all.

Charles C. Haynes is director of the Religious Freedom Center of the Newseum Institute, 555 Pennsylvania Ave., N.W., Washington, DC 20001. Web: Email: