McKay Coppins: Defending the faith: How Archbishop Dolan is redefining the battle over same sex marriage

Published: Saturday, Oct. 29 2011 10:00 p.m. MDT

For example, if a male employee of the Catholic Church were to take advantage of the new law and marry another man, he would likely be dismissed for embracing a lifestyle that contradicts the religion's teachings, Barnes said. But as it's written, the New York marriage law offers no specific protection for the hiring and firing practices of religious organizations.

"I could foresee the state determining that we can't make decisions on a moral or religious basis as we would have in the past regarding the employment of individuals who are actively defying church tenets," Barnes said. "If that happened, we would be in a position where we were asserting our First Amendment rights in court."

Similar scenarios could play out in religious institutions across the state, from hospitals to halfway houses. What's more, the law protects employees of religious groups from being sued, but it offers no explicit protection for independent practitioners who are personally opposed to same-sex marriage. A wedding photographer who refuses to take work from a gay couple based on his own moral beliefs could be opening himself up to an equal protection lawsuit, as happened in New Mexico. An innkeeper choosing not to allow a gay wedding reception could face similar action, as happened in Vermont.

"My prediction is that we're not going to know the full implications of this legislation for a decade," Barnes said. "Because many of these things may end up in litigation."

These are the issues that keep Archbishop Dolan on guard.

"We have to be particularly vigorous now in the protection of religious freedom," Archbishop Dolan said, "making sure the government does not force us to violate our conscience."

Strengthening individual marriages

While questions of religious freedom keep lobbyists and church leaders busy in the public policy arena, Archbishop Dolan will simultaneously seek to remind his flock what this debate has really been all about: not homosexuality, but the sanctity of marriage.

The archbishop is the first to admit that the institution was deteriorating long before "bride and groom" became "bride and bride." Rising divorce rates, widespread acceptance of premarital sex and a cultural revolt against monogamy all preceded the debate over gay marriage, and Archbishop Dolan wants to make sure those trends are being fought with the same vigor as the headline-grabbing social issues of the day.

"We are, as a people of faith, against any attempt by anyone anywhere to diminish the pure definition of marriage," Archbishop Dolan said. "We're against adultery, we're against a frivolous divorce, we're against cohabitation before marriage."

Combatting these societal threats can be done just as effectively at home as at the ballot box, Archbishop Dolan said. God's vision for marriage is a union between man and woman that is "loving, faithful and forever." And while the New York Legislature may not agree with the church on gender requirements, attaining that marital ideal should still be the top priority in every relationship.

Barnes similarly recognized the need for the traditional marriage movement to turn inward to a certain extent. "I think it is time for people to reinvigorate the institution of marriage at a personal level," said Barnes. "Until we can get to a place where we have strengthened marriage and used our lives as examples, we're not going to get very far."

Making the case

Shortly after the marriage bill passed in New York last summer, Archbishop Dolan, feeling dejected and more than a little anxious about the future, received a phone call from a Catholic bishop in the Midwest. At the time, Archbishop Dolan recalls, "the victors were crowing that now this was inevitable everywhere."

But from his perch in the heartland, the bishop on the line didn't quite see it that way.

"Are you kidding?" he told Archbishop Dolan. "In a way, this is the best thing that could have happened to us. Since the rest of the country can't stand New York, you all crowing about it is gonna make our job a little easier. Who's gonna want to copy you?"

To Archbishop Dolan, the joke underscored another important point: "We can't let our neighbors down."

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