As New York state prepares for a probable vote on legalizing same-gender marriage, a familiar argument from the anti-equality crowd is being raised: religious liberty. Religious conservatives are inflaming the faithful by claiming that if this bill passes their clergy will now be forced to perform same-gender marriages against their will.
Of course, this is simply not true. But truth seems to count for little when it comes to rallying public opinion against LGBT rights.
I'm a clergy member who regularly performs religious and civil marriages, both gay and straight. I have that option for two reasons. First, I live in an area of the country where my state and two contiguous states have legalized marriage without regard to gender. Second, my denomination, the United Church of Christ, has voted to allow clergy to marry same-gender couples if they so desire. But even still, I make the ultimate decision about whether or not I will officiate at a wedding.
If a couple comes to me and asks me to to perform their marriage we undertake a course of premarital counseling together. If I find that I cannot in good conscience marry a couple, I tell them I simply can't do it and suggest that they find another clergy member or a justice of the peace.
There are a lot of reasons I might say "no". Some of the more serious are abuse, active addiction, or suspicion that the couple is getting married for fraudulent purposes (think green cards). But it may be something much more minor, like the feeling that the couple just isn't ready, has unrealistic expectations of one another, or has more they need to discuss first.
The reality is sometimes clergy say "no". And they have every right and every legal protection should they do so. Which is what makes the religious liberty argument so misleading.
The right is telling us that now Catholic priests will be forced to marry two men. Orthodox rabbis will have to marry two women. But nothing could be further from the truth.
There are plenty of clergy in states that allow same-gender marriage who have declined to perform same-gender marriages. I know UCC ministers in these states, who have both the legal and religious sanction to bless same-gender marriages, who personally choose not to do so. They have made that decision freely and it is absolutely respected by the state. There is no threat to their religious liberty and there will be no threat to the religious liberty of New York clergy should this pass.
But, there's another side to the argument too. There's the fact that laws that restrict same-gender marriage are actually a violation of the religious liberty of clergy who desire to marry these couples.
There are two kinds of marriage here: religious and civil. The proposed New York law only deals with civil marriage. It doesn't touch religious marriage. But when a clergy member conducts a religious marriage we can also act as agents of the state and solemnize the civil marriage. Hence the "by the power vested in me by the State of New York" line.
Currently, I can marry a straight couple in New York and offer them that legal recognition at the end of a religious ceremony. But I can't do that with a same-gender couple. It doesn't matter that in the eyes of my church they would be married; to the state of New York they are not.
And that's the violation of religious liberty. That's the state telling the church what it's religious rites are worth. That's legalized discrimination permeating not just the law books, but the prayer books. That's the state telling me how to pray, and whom to bless. And that's wrong.
When the right argues for "religious liberty" they don't actually want it for all people of faith. They just want it for people of faith who think like them. And, really, their religious liberty is in no peril. But it sure makes a good soundbite, doesn't it?
So here's my challenge to the "religious liberty" folks: I will defend your right to define marriage as you like in your own faith communities so long as you will grant the same deference to me and mine. But if you really want to argue a civil rights issue on religious grounds, you have to acknowledge the fact that your "religious liberty" should not violate the religious liberty of others. Indeed, it should not even be a factor in the discussion on civil marriage because your right to define who will be married in your faith communities is under absolutely no threat.
Will the religious right concede? Of course not. But that's because this whole religious liberty argument has been a straw man from the very start. A way to stir up public anger about a non-issue in order to thwart civil equality. A way to hijack both faith and civil rights for their own agenda.
I hope that New York legislators are savvy enough to see through this. And I hope they will make a step towards civil equality knowing that now every clergy member in the state will now have the same right that anti-gay clergy have always had: the ability to choose who they will marry.