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In our opinion: Honoring religious conscience

Published: Saturday, Aug. 1 2015 2:03 a.m. MDT

A speaker address hundreds of persons gathered for the A speaker address hundreds of persons gathered for the "Defend Marriage Lobby Day" in the rotunda of the state Capitol in Springfield, Ill., Wednesday, Oct. 23, 2013, as opponents of gay marriage held their own event in Springfield, a day after thousands of supporters rallied for the legislation. Wednesday's events included pastors from a number of prominent Chicago area churches. Opponents were trying to target moderate Republicans and socially conservative members of the House Black Caucus. (Randy Squires, Associated Press)

Religious exemptions are an honored part of American history — a necessary tool for recognizing the role of churches in the community, upholding the Constitution and allowing people of faith to live in liberty without having to decide whether to violate their consciences or go to jail.

This newspaper has stood firmly against the legalization of same-sex marriage. It represents a profound and ill-considered change in one of society’s bedrock institutions, with untold consequences for children. But with same-sex marriage now legal in 15 states, it is important to support exemptions in those laws that allow people to freely exercise their consciences and live according to their religious beliefs.

A report in today’s Deseret News by Matthew Brown outlines the arguments for and against such exemptions, as well as the history of religious accommodation in the United States. It is important to note that those exemptions have been effective in allowing people of divergent beliefs to co-exist peacefully while maintaining order in society.

Many of today’s exemptions exist almost seamlessly within the fabric of American life. People may claim them to avoid vaccinating children or to keep their children from reciting the Pledge of Allegiance in school. Religions are exempted from certain equal opportunity laws when it comes to hiring so that, for example, a Catholic diocese would not have to hire a Jewish Rabbi or someone of another faith to administer the Eucharist. Religious hospitals generally are exempt from performing abortions.

Religions generally are also exempted from property taxes, both as a way to avoid potential entanglements that could endanger religious freedom and as a way of acknowledging that religions provide spiritual and temporal benefits to society, ultimately reducing the need for government expenditures.

But each of these has caused tensions from time to time and has had to be carefully measured against the intents of laws; and each comes with its own level of tension.

Throughout history, perhaps no exemption has been as contentious as the one that allows a conscientious objector to avoid military service. At a time of national peril, to allow someone to avoid protecting the nation while others are dying tends to inflame passions and arouse suspicions. And yet, through many years of struggle stretching back to the start of the republic, the nation has settled on rules that accommodate those objectors by requiring community service as an alternative.

It can be argued that the number of religious exemptions has been growing in recent years, especially with passage of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993, requiring governments to be as careful as possible not to restrict the exercise of conscience.

That law has been tested recently. The Affordable Care Act contains provisions requiring employers to offer health plans that cover contraceptive procedures. Several challenges to this law so far have yielded mixed resulted, with some courts ruling it violates the Religious Freedom Restoration Act and the Constitution, and others ruling exactly opposite.

Against this backdrop, it ought to be obvious that an issue as diametrically at odds with many religious teachings as same-sex marriage will require exemptions in order to avoid restrictions on constitutionally protected liberties.

Some states already have put exemptions into law. In Delaware, for example, judges do not have to perform same-sex marriages if it would violate their faith. We would hope such exemptions would be extended not just to organized religions, but to individuals, as well.

The value of religious freedom is incalculable. Few things incite passions as deeply as spiritual beliefs. In too many countries, the refusal to tolerate differences has led to violence and chaos. The United States stands as a shining example of how to accommodate these differences through constitutionally protected freedoms and exemptions from laws that otherwise would infringe.

Without the ability to live according to one’s religion, the guarantee of religious freedom means little.

Copyright 2015, Deseret News Publishing Company