In the contentious debate surrounding gay marriage, a couple of conservative talking points stand out for their irrationality. One of those is the notion that allowing same-sex couples to marry would represent a gross usurpation of religious freedom.
Like the equally ridiculous idea that homosexual marriage would somehow undermine heterosexual marriage, the notion of infringing on religious liberties is a thicket of misunderstandings, historical distortions and outright lies. Now that President Obama has endorsed the principle of marriage as a civil right that should be available to all citizens, I fully expect that thicket to explode, spewing a cloud of nonsense over an argument already laden with foolishness.
Take the insistence by some conservative Christians that if same-sex marriage were broadly legal, the federal government would be in a position to force Southern Baptist ministers and Catholic priests to carry out such marriages. Campaigning against gay marriage in California in 2008, Tony Perkins, head of the ultraconservative Family Research Council, declared that if same-sex marriages were legalized, “Pastors and churches will be silenced from speaking publicly against homosexuality.”
Really, that’s too idiotic to merit a response — but I’m going there anyway. Has the federal government ever ordered the Vatican to marry a divorced couple whom it deemed unworthy of the sacrament? Has the government ever tried to force a Haredi rabbi to sanction a marriage between a member of his community and a non-Jew? Of course not. Such marriages would be readily and legally performed in a courthouse, but the First Amendment protects the right of religious institutions to perform only those rituals which they choose.
By the way, that same protection runs in the other direction, too. While conservative Christians — and, unfortunately, the news media, as well — tend to define “Christianity” as solely the province of conservative believers, there are many liberal ministers who have happily performed same-sex marriages in the handful of states that allow them.