Many Americans in Utah, Oklahoma, Virginia and elsewhere are waiting to learn whether federal courts will require same-sex marriage to become law in their state. For me, as a resident of Washington State, gay marriage is a done deal. I am waiting to learn whether people who adhere to a traditional morality will be able to live according to their conscience.
Last month there was a great uproar in Arizona over modifications to a law that would have provided a legal defense for people who refuse to provide services on religious grounds. The bill was killed in a storm of controversy, with protesters, pundits and politicians talking about Jim Crow laws. The controversy didn’t draw much attention to why the bill was proposed. It had nothing to do with separate lunch counters. Rather, it was an attempt to create a conscientious objector status for people who don’t want to participate in or lend their creative powers to same-sex celebrations.
Many Americans have been sued for refusing to provide services for same-sex ceremonies. A couple who run a bed and breakfast in Vermont; they paid $35,000 in fees and promised to never again host a wedding or wedding reception of any kind. A baker in Oregon had to close his business. A photographer lost at the New Mexico Supreme Court. A florist in Washington State is being sued by her Attorney General. Also in Washington State, a judge who asked his colleagues to whom he might refer gay couples should they ask him to officiate at their wedding was officially sanctioned by the Washington State Commission on Judicial Conduct and agreed to never perform any marriages.
There are other similar cases. The most troubling of all began in January. A man filed a complaint with the Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination because a Catholic School withdrew its job offer upon learning he was married to a man. Though the employer is a religious organization, he has been arguing that the position in food service has nothing to do with religion.
These conflicts boil down to the fact that marriage is not a private activity; it is a social institution. It's a title granted by the community that places obligations upon all community members. Friends and relatives are expected to attend the wedding and offer gifts. Family members are expected to accept the new spouse as one of their own. Acquaintances and colleagues are expected to invite the spouse to social events. Single people are expected to leave the spouses alone. Employers are expected to provide the spouse with insurance. Courts are expected to ensure certain spousal privileges and enforce certain spousal obligations.
In short, everybody is expected to recognize and show deference for the marriage, the idea being that it’s a building block of society and thus deserves our support. In the eyes of social conservatives, though, same-sex marriage is not a building block of society. It’s an affront to our consciences. We believe homosexuality defies the purpose of our creation and offends our Creator. Yet the obligations that homosexual marriages place upon community members are also placed on us.
How are people of traditional faiths supposed to act in this environment? Should we abandon a core tenet of our religion? Should we shut up and pretend we agree? Should we employ our creative skills toward something we find fundamentally immoral? Or should we retreat to a different neighborhood? A different state? A different livelihood? It makes sense to permit conscientious objector status to activities that offend our moral values.
I hear people express hope that the fuss will soon be over, that soon all Americans will accept same-sex marriage. This thinking is naïve. In the coming decades a significant portion of religious Americans will accept homosexual marriage. But the most faithful will not. Christians, Muslims, Jews, Sikhs, and others are governed by scriptures. That is why, unless they are prepared to burn or rewrite these books, progressives need to be satisfied with only a partial victory.
People of traditional faiths don’t think chastity is an incidental or private virtue. While homosexual people are afraid of being treated as blacks were during the Jim Crow era, people of faith are also afraid of being treated like second-class citizens. Our religious heritage is out of step with the new majority. We may be pushed out of certain industries, ostracized from certain circles, and confined to a legal ghetto. This is why individuals must have a right to deny offering services. It is the only way for our legal system to allow both gays and people of faith to live outside the closet.
Lara Cardon Updike is a writer for the Family Policy Institute of Washington State. She lives near Seattle with her husband and four children.