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Colliding causes: Gay rights and religious liberty

Published: Saturday, Feb. 11 2012 1:00 p.m. MST

*In November, wedding-cake maker Victoria Childress told a lesbian couple who came to her home-based business in Des Moines that as a Pentecostal Christian she would not be able to make a cake to celebrate their wedding, which she defines as the union of one man and one woman. Shortly after, the couple told a local TV station they felt discriminated against, and later mentioned they were contemplating a lawsuit. Even though they chose not to pursue legal action, gay-rights groups have boycotted Childress' business and she says she's been inundated with letters and e-mails from people who either praise her decision or condemn her a bigot.

*And last February, Jim and Beth Walder, owners of Timber Creek Bed & Breakfast in Illinois, were hit with a civil rights complaint when they declined to host a same-sex civil union because of their religious beliefs. They are awaiting a hearing this summer on the allegation of discrimination, and if they lose they could face a hefty fine, similar to the Huguenins'.

"There's a crusade to drive out people with traditional views of marriage and intimidate them in to silence," said the Huguenins' attorney Jordan Lorence of The Alliance Defense Fund, a Christian legal alliance based in Scottsdale, Ariz., that defends the right of individuals to freely live their faith. "That is not pluralistic, not diversity-oriented … and is not consistent with the First Amendment."

The debate over same-sex marriage has been centered on equality, but Lorence and others — including those who support non-discriminatory hiring and housing policies for gays — worry that the push for tolerance in the name of equality is going too far, forcing individuals of faith to compromise their religious beliefs.

Just this week, the U.S. Ninth Circuit Court ruled that Proposition 8 — an amendment to California's constitution defining marriage as the union of one man and one woman — was unconstitutional. Supporters of the Proposition have been labeled bigots and even attacked, and their churches have been picketed and vandalized.

Catholic Charities of Illinois lost millions in state funding when they refused to place children with homosexual couples. Catholic Charities of Massachusetts stopped doing adoptions in 2006 for the same reason, and in Michigan, graduate student Julea Ward was kicked out of a counseling program because she declined to promote homosexual relationships in discussions with a gay client.

"Our nation, for a very long time, has treated with great deference and respect the views of people who believe in traditional morality, but now they're no longer being listened to or treated like they're fully capable of participating in the national debate in some way," said Bill Duncan, director of the Marriage Law Foundation, a Utah-based non-profit. "The conflict between legal recognition of non-marriage relationships is going to be the most significant, immediate challenge to the ability of religious believers to act on their beliefs in the public square."

LEGAL PROTECTIONS

For many people, the discussion about same-sex marriage is still a somewhat amorphous moral argument, says Luke Goodrich, an attorney with the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, based in Washington, D.C. That is, until he explains what is happening to people like Elaine Huguenin, Victoria Childress and the Ocean Grove Methodists.

"(Then they say), 'Oh wow, I go to a church that has a pavilion,' or 'I had a wedding photographer,'" Goodrich said. "They see that wherever same-sex marriage is legalized without religious liberty protections, it's going to have these problems."

Six states or districts have legalized same-sex marriage — Connecticut, Iowa, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New York, Vermont and Washington D.C., with a handful of additional states that allow same-sex civil unions. Washington is set to become the seventh state to legalize same-sex marriage after its Senate and House recently passed such a bill. The governor plans to sign the bill Monday.

"Same-sex marriage hasn't been legalized in many places, but in only a few years a few concrete examples (of religious liberty conflicts) have arisen," Goodrich said. "We have every reason to expect there will be more examples in the future."

However, gay-rights advocates dismiss this "sky is falling" mentality and say conflicts like the Huguenins' are under-representative and over-cited.

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