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Religious leaders ponder next steps after Supreme Court rules for same-sex marriage
Clergy on all sides of the debate over same-sex marriage ponder their next moves after the Supreme Court of the United States declared a national right to such unions. - photo by Mark A. Kellner
As confetti and leaflets were cleared from the steps of the Supreme Court Friday after a 5-4 majority ruled in favor of a constitutional right to same-sex marriage, religious groups across the ideological spectrum reacted to the decision.

To supporters, such as the Rt. Rev. Gene Robinson, retired Episcopal bishop of New Hampshire, the high court victory "certainly (brought) joy. We've been talking about this for a very long time."

Opponents, however, had a different view. The Rev. Russell Moore, president of the Southern Baptist Convention's Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, was more concerned about protections for religious people.

"One of the most tragic results we could see is an unrelenting culture war from secular progressives against those who dissent based on (their) deeply held religious beliefs," he said on a conference call with reporters after the decision.

The decision itself hints at constitutional protections for religious conscience. Writing for the majority, Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote, "The First Amendment ensures that religious organizations and persons are given proper protection as they seek to teach the principles that are so fulfilling and so central to their lives and faiths, and to their own deep aspirations to continue the family structure they have long revered."

But Chief Justice John Roberts responded in his dissenting opinion, "The majority graciously suggests that religious believers may continue to 'advocate' and 'teach' their views of marriage. The First Amendment guarantees, however, the freedom to 'exercise' religion. Ominously, that is not a word the majority uses."

These conflicting views from the high court "will tee up some questions squarely," according to Robin Fretwell Wilson, a professor at the University of Illinois College of Law, such as what the rules should be for faith-based organizations with regard to adoptions or moral conduct standards at religiously affiliated universities.

While almost all sides believe individual clergy, congregations and denominations are protected by the First Amendment's religious freedom guarantees when it comes to which marriages a religious community can choose to recognize, questions about faith-based organizations that are not houses of worship are almost guaranteed to arise.

"There are going to be many other religious liberty questions that come to the forefront," the Rev. Moore said. "If the secular left decides to prosecute with the power of the state those who cannot put their consciences in a blind trust, then it will be soon."

Conflicts predicted

During oral arguments in Obergefell v. Hodges, the case just decided, Justice Samuel Alito asked U.S. Solicitor General Donald B. Verrilli Jr. about tax exemptions for religious-backed colleges and universities if the court were to rule for marriage equality.

Verrilli told Alito, "It's certainly going to be an issue" if a religiously affiliated school restricted married student housing to heterosexual married couples.

The Rev. Moore said the issue of accommodating same-sex marriages would also apply to churches and faith-based groups contracting with the government to provide social services, including adoption. "Another (issue) would be military chaplains being forced to perform same-sex marriages," in which case, he predicted, "we would lose all the evangelical, Roman Catholic, Muslim and Orthodox Jewish chaplains in the military."

"We're going to have significant social change for many people," Wilson said. "This may be a time to calm out and not ramp up" arguments over accommodations for faith-based institutions and individuals, she said.

Wilson asserted states "will have to think very hard" about how to implement same-sex marriage while doing "something about how do we all live together with equal dignity." She said North Carolina's attempt to balance rights by allowing magistrates to opt-out of performing marriages was "clumsy," while touting Utah's law that included anti-discrimination protections for gays and lesbians as well as religious freedom protections as an example of a state that "did it right."

Wilson also said the decision places the enforcement burden on the administration.

"I think what it does tell us is the ball is in President Obama's court now and they have to decide whether they want to pick that particular fight" over, for example, how faith-based institutions will have to accommodate same-sex couples in their housing for married couples.

According to Rabbi Marla J. Feldman, an attorney and director of Women of Reform Judaism in New York City, that fight may already have been decided because the Supreme Court's ruling embeds same-sex marriage rights into law.

"The short answer is a university taking federal dollars is obligated to follow federal law," Rabbi Feldman said. And after the Supreme Court ruling, the decision "has the force of law, and once it is embedded as a constitutional right, those options (to deny housing to same-sex couples) no longer exist."

Reaction from religious groups

Religious organizations holding views on all sides of the case had reactions at the ready the moment the decision came down Friday. In fact, the Rev. Moore was expecting not only a ruling, but also the particular judgment rendered.

"This should not be a surprise to Christians," he said. "I've been saying for the two years I've been in this position that same-sex marriage is coming to your neighborhood."

Nathan Diament, executive director for public policy at the Orthodox Union, a Jewish group, said his constituents will look to lawmakers for the protection of their religious freedoms under this ruling.

"We will be looking to any and all legislatures whether the Congress or in the states that will be taking up initiatives to expand or implement LGBT rights to do so in a way that protects religious liberty as well. New York, Maryland and others did this in their same sex marriage legislation and we expect others to do the same."

The Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Washington, in a statement, noted "the Court's ruling has the potential to create circumstances in which the Church's teaching and practices may be perceived to conflict with civil law. As such situations arise, the local Church will have to undertake a moral evaluation to determine, on a case-by-case basis, the manner in which it will respond to this conflict."

And the National Association of Evangelicals, or NAE, said the decision drew a line between what its constituents believe the Bible says about marriage and what the state now defines it as.

"Nothing in the Supreme Courts opinion changes the truth about marriage. What has changed is the legal definition of marriage, which is now at variance with orthodox biblical faith as it has been affirmed across the centuries and as it is embraced today by nearly two billion Christians in every nation on earth," the group said in a statement.

"In its role as a moral teacher, the law now misleads Americans about the true nature of marriage. Evangelicals and other followers of the Bible have a heightened opportunity to demonstrate the attractiveness of loving Christian marriages and families," the organization said.

On the other side of the issue, the Episcopal Church's Presiding Bishop Katherine Jefferts Schori said, "I rejoice that the Supreme Court has opened the way for the love of two people to be recognized by all the states of this Union, and that the Court has recognized that it is this enduring, humble love that extends beyond the grave that is to be treasured by society wherever it exists."

Bishop Schori and the Rev. Robinson spoke from the Episcopal Church's 78th General Convention in Salt Lake City, where church leaders and delegates are expected to vote on a same-sex marriage liturgy and a more-inclusive definition of marriage. Robinson said there is still "much work to be done," referring to additional protections for gay people. "A gay person can be married on a Sunday and fired from their job on a Monday," he said.

The United Church of Christ also signaled its approval of the ruling and interrupted its synod meetings to perform same-sex weddings. "Today we celebrate a victory for justice and equality; it is a significant moment in this journey, the Rev. Mike Schuenemeyer, UCC health and wholeness advocacy executive, said.

Another, smaller segment of evangelicals lined up with mainline Christian groups such as the UCC and the Episcopalians. Activist Brandon Robertson organized a group of 100 evangelical pastors and thought leaders, including former NAE public policy chief Richard Cizik, to support same-sex marriage. The group released a statement that said, in part, "We join with millions of people around the country in celebration of this major step towards justice and equality for LGBTQ people in the United States."

Robertson said that while he "absolutely believes" in conscience rights for evangelicals and others who oppose same-sex marriage on religious grounds, the question of protecting faith-based schools and other organizations is, in his view, more nuanced.

"If the school is taking federal money, they should have to comply with federal regulations," Robertson said. "If it is completely private, they should be able to hold whatever beliefs they want. There need to be some clear questions raised."

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints said that despite the ruling, it "will continue to teach and promote marriage between a man and a woman as a central part of our doctrine and practice."
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