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Mormon Media Observer: Gay marriage debate shows threat to religious freedom

Published: Monday, July 4 2011 6:30 a.m. MDT

In a 2009 devotional at BYU-Idaho, Elder Dallin H. Oaks said something that I had never fully considered before he said it:

“Religious belief is obviously protected against government action. The practice of that belief must have some limits. ... But unless the guarantee of free exercise of religion gives a religious actor greater protection against government prohibitions than are already guaranteed to all actors by other provisions of the constitution (like freedom of speech), what is the special value of religious freedom? Surely the First Amendment guarantee of free exercise of religion was intended to grant more freedom to religious action than to other kinds of action. Treating actions based on religious belief the same as actions based on other systems of belief should not be enough to satisfy the special place of religion in the United States Constitution.”

That Elder Oaks’ words were right on target needs little further evidence than some of the debate emerging following New York’s recent decision to define marriage as including those who come from the same sex.

New York legislators tried to protect religious organizations from having to perform marriages with which they disagreed and carved that protection into their new law, but this part of the law didn’t satisfy gay writer Howard Chua-Eoan, who wrote for Time:

“In one very important way, gay marriage will not quite be marriage even in New York, even 30 days from now when the law goes into effect. That is because the psycho-sexual-financial-commercial-legal dramas that entangle the domestic lives of straight people often have another component: religion. And religious institutions have an exemption in the new law over accommodating gay people. It was key to the passage of the legislation.

He continued: “Marriage without a church or temple wedding isn't the real thing. Why can some people have all the bells and whistles in the church of their choice but not me? Of course, there have been and will be congregations and churches that allow gay men and lesbians to be married in their midst and to bless those union. … but some rich and influential religious institutions are not only free to continue to reject gay men and women as equal beneficiaries of all aspects of faith but will now also rally their congregants to reject politicians who are willing to abide with this extension of secular civil rights — no matter how much acceptance there is of same-sex marriage elsewhere.”

Is this writer demanding that government compel religions to violate their beliefs? Would a religion still be allowed to say homosexuality is sin under his view?

That such views and demands might cause grave consternation was made plain in a wonderful editorial in the Wall Street Journal this week. In the editorial, the Rev. R. Albert Mohler writes that homosexuality is shaking the foundations of the Christian Church. He writes, “To many onlookers, this seems strange or even tragic. Why can't Christians just join the revolution?”

He says some Christian denominations can “simply accommodate themselves” to the situation. “This is a route that evangelical Christians committed to the full authority of the Bible cannot take. … We cannot pretend as if we do not know that the Bible clearly teaches that all homosexual acts are sinful, as is all human sexual behavior outside the covenant of marriage.”

So, Elder Oaks words seem truer today than even a couple years ago. Only our Constitution protects religious organizations against such outside forces that could assault their fundamental practices.

The issue is playing out in the pages of the press this week, and the stakes are high.

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