Religious liberty—the ability to freely exercise one’s religious beliefs—is a cornerstone of American democracy. It is a right woven throughout the legal fabric of our nation, one that is espoused in state laws, state constitutions, and most importantly in the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.
Unfortunately, however, conservative lawmakers have increasingly turned to misusing religious freedom as a political tool to obstruct policies they oppose. With regard to marriage equality for gay and lesbian couples, for example, conservatives are charging (and misleadingly so) that laws and policies that level the playing field for same-sex couples threaten the free exercise of religion in the United States.
An increasing majority of Americans, including President Barack Obama, believe that we should afford the freedom to marry to all couples. And Americans from all faith backgrounds support the ability to practice one’s religion free from government interference. These twin freedoms—the freedom to worship and the freedom to marry—are both important American values, and they are wholly compatible with one another.
But opponents of marriage equality would like to think otherwise. They disingenuously argue that marriage equality will unduly require clergy to officiate weddings between same-sex couples even if doing so violates their religious beliefs. Opponents similarly claim that marriage equality laws violate the religious freedom of shopkeepers, restaurant owners, and private citizens by compelling them to provide goods and services to same-sex couples, even if they already must do so under existing nondiscrimination public accommodations laws.
We’ve seen much of this show before. Opponents of interracial marriage employed similar arguments and tactics as a way to gin up opposition to laws and court rulings that advanced equal marriage for couples of different races. Of course, following these laws and rulings, no religious leader has been forced to officiate a wedding ceremony that violated his or her faith, including ceremonies for interracial couples. The only thing that changed with the legalization of interracial marriage is that governments were no longer able to deny these couples a marriage license or the benefits that come with marriage. The state of religious liberty remained and continues to remain unchanged with respect to interracial marriage. The same rings true in those states that have legalized marriage equality for same-sex couples.