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Op-ed: Freedom of religion and freedom to marry can co-exist

Published January 18, 2014 1:01 am

This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2014, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

Judge Robert Shelby's decision invalidating as unconstitutional Utah's Amendment 3 and state law provisions restricting marriage only to opposite-sex couples has intensified the howls from certain faith communities that their religious liberty is jeopardized by marriage equality and the recognition of LGBT people and their families as first-class citizens.

The false dichotomy that marriage equality for LGBT Utahns and freedom of religion for all Utahns (including LGBT Utahns) are diametrically opposed and mutually exclusive (or even in tension at all) is spurious at best, and a disingenuous scare tactic aimed at fomenting fear among the faithful, at worst.

People of faith have nothing to fear from legal recognition of same-sex marriages. Marriage equality for LGBT Utahns has no bearing or impact on religious belief or exercise, whether privately or in churches, temples, or mosques, or on public expression of religious belief.

Legal recognition of same-sex marriages simply does not compel persons of faith to change their beliefs or to worship differently. If a gay couple receives a valid marriage license from the state today, the faithful are still free to believe whatever they want and to worship however they want tomorrow.

One need only look to history to confirm that religious freedom is not threatened by allowing all citizens to exercise their freedom to marry.

In the 1967 case Loving v. Virginia, the Supreme Court declared laws prohibiting interracial marriage to be unconstitutional infringements of the fundamental right of marriage. Despite similar fears from pious circles, Loving did not spark a wave of attempts to force, through litigation or otherwise, any religion to perform, host, or endorse those marriages if they were inconsistent with a religion's beliefs or practices because the First Amendment was strong enough to protect the free exercise of religion.

There is no reason to believe the First Amendment is any weaker today and the wolf-criers have offered no cogent evidence, precedent or logic to suggest that there are cracks in the First Amendment dam.

In fact, our experience with marriage equality thus far has been similar. Marriage equality has existed in this country for almost a full decade, yet no attempt, whether through the courts or legislatures, has been made to compel any religion to solemnize or endorse same-sex marriages in its house of worship against its religious beliefs and doctrine.

This is true because the First Amendment is strong enough to protect the free exercise of religion while the Due Process Clauses and the Equal Protection Clause simultaneously protect LGBT citizens' fundamental right to marriage, and because, despite whatever nefarious motives are wrongly attributed to them, LGBT couples are not looking to force religions to celebrate their marriages, even though many sincerely wish the religions in which they were raised and still hold dear would.

Same-sex couples understand that change of religious belief cannot and should not be compelled but instead comes from living authenticity and loving openly in the hope of convincing.

What might really be troubling religious supporters of traditional marriage is that those efforts at persuading are finding success with the broader public, evidenced by growing acceptance of same-sex marriages and their families. But that does not equate to an infringement of a person's freedom of religion.

The brilliance of our constitutional republic and its embrace of pluralism is that it is possible for persons of faith to believe and worship according to the dictates of their conscience while others who may hold differing views are able to exercise their fundamental right to marry the person they love, black or white, gay or straight.

Scott D. McCoy is a former Utah state senator who led the campaign against Amendment 3 in 2004 and now practices law in New York City.