After approval of Proposition 8 in California last fall, who would have expected to find the movement for same-sex marriage and concern for religious freedom on common ground in the spring? As legislatures in Vermont and Connecticut have just demonstrated, however, a long-overdue reconciliation between claims of marriage equality and those of religious liberty is there for the taking.
In the fight over Proposition 8, social conservatives used arguments about religious freedom as a sword. Their most prominent arguments were spectacularly overstated. Some proponents of Prop 8 warned, for example, that recognition of gay marriage would lead to hate speech prosecutions of anti-gay pastors, and loss of tax exemption for churches that refused to host same-sex marriages. Though neither of these developments was remotely likely, some voters were apparently moved by these assertions to support Prop 8.
Very recently, however, same-sex marriage has gotten a tremendous boost. In early April, the Iowa Supreme Court and the Vermont legislature, acted in favor of same-sex marriage. On April 23, the Connecticut legislature did likewise. But Vermont and Connecticut, acting through the legislative process, took steps that are not open to courts in cases like that in Iowa. Both the Vermont and Connecticut legislatures acted to protect religious freedom as well as marriage equality. The recently enacted Vermont law recognizes the right of clergy to not preside over same-sex marriages; the right of religious organizations to refuse the use of their facilities to celebrate a same-sex marriage; and the right of fraternal benefit societies, such as the Knights of Columbus, to refuse to provide insurance benefits to same-sex partners of its members if the organization has religious scruples against doing so. The Connecticut law includes those three safeguards for religious liberty but goes farther still. It insulates religious organizations from liability for refusing to provide any goods or services when the request for such goods or services arises from a same-sex marriage – so, for example, a religiously affiliated college would not have to make its married student housing available to a married same-sex couple. And the Connecticut law exempts adoption and foster care services run by religious organizations from any obligation to serve same-sex couples, so long as these services are not government-funded. Thus, in Vermont and Connecticut, religious liberty became a shield for religious freedom against the intrusion of same-sex marriage on traditional religious values, not a sword to be used against all recognition of such marriages.