On Tuesday, the U.S. Supreme Court will hear arguments in four cases that could have profound and lasting impacts on the nation's cherished foundational support for religious freedom and tolerance.
Should a majority of the court agree with the plaintiffs that laws defining marriage as between a man and a woman are grounded in animus, or hostility, toward gays and lesbians, or that they are evidence of prejudice, ignorance or bigotry, many religious believers would find themselves turned into second-class citizens.
An amicus brief filed by several churches, including The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, which owns this newspaper, asserts, "It is a small step from declaring beliefs constitutionally illegitimate to treating those who hold such beliefs as morally and intellectually deficient."
That step would be a sad one for America, and for the constitutional tradition that has kept the state and religion separate without inhibiting religion's place in society. The future of same-sex marriage ought to belong to the states, where a democratic process can grapple with conflicts through compromises.
The speed with which the acceptance of gay marriage has swept the nation — often spurred only by judicial fiat — is stunning. So is the speed with which an attitude of intolerance has grown toward any who believe in preserving the long-held and time-tested definition of marriage.
Only three years ago, same-sex marriage was legal in just six states. Today, it is legal in 36 states and the District of Columbia.
Perhaps nowhere is this rapid change in attitude more evident than in politics. As quoted recently by the New York Times, current presidential candidate and former first lady Hillary Clinton said in 2000, "Marriage has got historic, religious and moral content that goes back to the beginning of time, and I think a marriage is as a marriage has always been, between a man and a woman."
As late as last year, she said, "For me, marriage had always been a matter left to the states."
Yet today she affirms that she supports the Supreme Court creating a constitutional right to same-sex marriage.
It would be ridiculous to claim that Mrs. Clinton's opinion a decade ago was based on bigotry and hatred. But it is not ridiculous at all to assert that this rapid change in public policy is being forged without much thought toward its long-term consequences for children, families and the time-honored role of religious tolerance in public life.
On the impact for children, the American College of Pediatricians notes on its website that much of the research purporting to show that children raised by gay couples fare as well as those raised by heterosexual couples is flawed, based on small, non-random samples, and filled with faulty conclusions.
Determining actual impacts of changes in marriage is difficult, however, given the many factors at play. Certainly, prejudice against gay parents could play a role.
Still, the push toward redefining marriage and family through judicial fiat belies many important considerations that deserve more thought and study.
The issue ought to be left to state legislatures, which reflect the will of the people. As Utah showed through recent legislation, good-faith compromises can result in laws that preserve the delicate balances of rights that have been the hallmark of the American system of government.
On the other hand, judicial decisions that circumvent this process can lead to endless struggles and feelings of powerlessness, as evidence by the continuing battles over abortion rights more than 40 years after Roe v. Wade.
The U.S. Supreme Court should let the nation step back, catch its breath and proceed in a way that does not trample on religious liberty, with its untold consequences.