The most basic of all human rights, hammered out for millennia, is the right of religious freedom. I have often said that this is America’s greatest single contribution to civilization. Here what you believe is permitted and you can practice your personal faith without state interference, so long as no one else’s rights are harmed by your practice.
There is a fierce debate going on now about civil unions and same-sex marriage. Personally I have no doubt that same-sex marriage will eventually become the norm. It already is the norm in some states and over time I believe that it will be law in the majority of states. It will then become the law of the nation. On one side people argue that their right to free expression is hindered by our present laws while on the other people believe a fundamental building block of a moral and decent society is at stake.
My deepest concern in this debate has been growing for some time and it is not a concern over where we will end up defining marriage. In the end how the state actually defines marriage should not be a primary concern for Christians. (Note: I said “primary” concern!) Ancient Rome defined marriage and the early church clearly had very different ideas about sex and marriage. The early church not only survived but eventually it thrived!
My concern in this debate is about religious freedom, our most basic Constitutional right. Why does this concern me?
A recent example in Illinois serves to make my point. The governor informed a number of diocesan Catholic Charities that the state would not renew its foster care and adoption contracts with them starting in fiscal 2012 because their policy on not placing children with unmarried couples allegedly violates a new state civil unions law.
Now the ironies of this challenge are quite considerable. First, Governor Patrick Quinn is a Mass-attending Catholic. As such he is going head-to-head with Illinois bishops and Catholic social agencies. Second, the Illinois bill that created same-sex civil unions is called the Illinois Religious Freedom Protection and Civil Union Act. Third, proponents of the law explicitly denied the critics’ claims that this type of impact would come to bear on adoption agencies run by religious groups who disagree with the law.
New York provides a similar example with its same-sex marriage law. Before the law went into effect the New York Times editorialized about the “discriminatory intent” of the law’s provision that “allows tax-exempt charities to refuse to marry a same-sex couple or to allow the use of their buildings or services for weddings or wedding parties.”
This all means exactly what the words say. Many proponents of same-sex marriage are not satisfied to get the law changed about marriage. They want to remove the religious freedom churches have previously enjoyed to follow conscience and not the state. The editorial board of the NY Times clearly wants Catholic priests to marry same-sex couples or face the consequences.
What are the consequences? Right now they might seem almost inconsequential but the first line of attack is on Catholic social services. The same has already happened with regard to abortion and now it is happening with regard to same-sex reforms.
Are all advocates of same-sex marriage committed to forcing the church (legally) to conform to their views? Not at all. I think, in fact, it is only a minority at this point. But unless we gain clear evidence of respect for religious freedom the minority will become a cultural majority over time. Mine is not a far-right plea from the hinterlands. This is what is really happening. We had better defend the religious rights of all or the day will come when none of us will have them.
The solution is for Christians to join with non-Christians who are reasonable, and understand our system of laws, and to fight together for principles of democracy and tolerance that the church and our fiercest critics all know is right. This is not a Christian issue, per se, it is an issue of freedom for all who want to practice their faith in public, not just in their hearts. If we lose this freedom we will lose the greatest freedom our nation affords to us. This is why we must stand with every faith and allow all to express their faith as they see fit.