Cliff Owen, AP
Supreme Court police officers walk on the plaza in front of the Supreme Court in Washington, Tuesday, April 28, 2015. Later this month, the Supreme Court will issue its decision in Obergefell v. Hodges, the case involving state marriage laws. The central question in this case is whether or not the Constitution requires all 50 states to redefine marriage.

Later this month, the Supreme Court will issue its decision in Obergefell v. Hodges, the case involving state marriage laws. The central question in this case is whether or not the Constitution requires all 50 states to redefine marriage.

But back in April, when the Supreme Court heard oral arguments in the case, Solicitor General Donald Verrilli revealed that the implications of the court’s ruling in Obergefell v. Hodges extend far beyond the narrow issue of marriage licenses.

In a brief back and forth about IRS regulations, Justice Samuel Alito asked Solicitor General Verrilli whether religious institutions — including schools — that maintain the traditional definition of marriage would lose their tax-exempt status should the court strike down state laws defining marriage as the union of a man and a woman.

The solicitor general responded: “It’s certainly going to be an issue. I don’t deny that. I don’t deny that, Justice Alito. It is, it is going to be an issue.”

This was a chilling moment, but not totally unexpected. For years we’ve seen warnings that, for some activists, the objective is not just legal recognition of same-sex unions, but government coercion of individuals and institutions to affirm — and even participate in — such unions, regardless of good-faith religious objections.

We first saw this new wave of intolerance emerge a decade ago in Massachusetts, when Catholic Charities of Boston was forced to stop providing adoption services because they would not — could not — place children in the homes of same-sex couples.

More recently, there was the case of Aaron and Melissa Klein, the husband-and-wife duo who ran a small bakery in Oregon and were fined $135,000 for declining to bake a cake for a same-sex wedding ceremony — and this was after protests and boycotts forced the Kleins to shut down their bakery.

Then there’s Julea Ward, a marriage counselor who was kicked out of her graduate degree program for referring same-sex couples to other counselors who didn’t share her religious convictions about marriage.

These cases — and many others like them — prove that the expected court ruling may not be the end of the marriage debate, but just the beginning of a much larger and more troublesome one.

The next controversies will not be over whether gay couples should receive marriage licenses, but whether people who don’t think so may keep their business licenses; whether colleges that don’t think so will be able to keep their accreditation; whether military chaplains who don’t think so will be court-martialed; whether churches who don’t think so will be targeted for reprisal by the state; whether heterodox religious belief itself will be swept from the public square.

You don’t need to subscribe to any particular faith, or hold any particular beliefs about marriage, to see the danger of a government forcing innocent people to violate their conscience when they are just trying to make a living, serve their community or educate the next generation.

That’s why this week I introduced in the Senate the “First Amendment Defense Act.”

This is a bill that would prohibit the federal government from penalizing individuals or institutions on the basis that they act in accordance with a religious belief that marriage is a union between one man and one woman.

The First Amendment Defense Act, which Rep. Raúl Labrador, R-Idaho, will introduce in the House of Representatives, would prevent any agency from denying a federal tax exemption, grant, contract, accreditation, license or certification to an individual or institution for acting on their religious beliefs about marriage.

For instance, under this bill the IRS could not revoke the tax-exempt status from any of the tens of thousands of religiously affiliated schools in America — pre-schools through college — whose religious convictions dictate that they maintain the traditional definition of marriage.

In 1993, on the day he signed into law the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, President Bill Clinton said that the government has an obligation to protect the “space of freedom between Government and people of faith that otherwise Government might usurp.”

I agree with President Clinton. If we want to reinforce religious liberty in America, our first step must be to protect that crucial “space of freedom” from undue government interference.

EDITOR'S NOTE: Portions of this op-ed first appeared in Sen. Lee’s June 11 address, “Conserving Religious Liberty For All."

Mike Lee is the junior U.S. senator from Utah.