Why gay-marriage friends, foes need one another

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Charles C. Haynes
November 21, 2009

Same-sex marriage advances in one region, then retreats in another, making the United States a two-nation nation on this issue—now and for years to come. Advocates on both sides are in the majority somewhere, but in the minority somewhere else.

That’s why two church-state encounters this month, in two very different parts of the country, are instructive reminders that in a deeply divided society winners are very unlikely to take all.

First in Utah, where the Mormon Church—the dominant faith in the state with considerable religious and political influence—announced support for gay-rights legislation before the city council in Salt Lake City. After the church’s endorsement, laws banning discrimination against gays in unemployment and housing passed the council unanimously Nov. 10.

Meanwhile in Washington, D.C., the Roman Catholic Church is asking for more religious accommodation in a proposed law legalizing same-sex marriage that’s expected to pass the city council in the next few weeks. Although the current bill has language ensuring that religious groups would not be required to perform same-sex weddings (actually, a legal redundancy because such coercion is already unconstitutional), the church says that is not enough.

Catholic leaders argue that once gay marriage is legal, Catholic social-service providers with city contracts would be required to violate church teachings by, for example, extending employee benefits to gay married couples.

Taken together, these developments in Utah and the District of Columbia are a reminder that friends and foes of gay marriage need one another. In regions of the country with gay marriage—or trending that way—conservative religious groups need gay-rights supporters to enact protections for religious conscience. And in regions with constitutional bans on gay marriage, gay-rights advocates need conservative religious groups to support nondiscrimination laws that include sexual orientation.

Judging from the new legislation in Salt Lake City, we can say Mormon leaders appear to understand the need for give and take. While not retreating from its opposition to gay marriage, the church has reached out to support gay rights in a state where Mormons are in the vast majority. Coming in the wake of the anti-Mormon backlash after the passage of Proposition 8 in California, the church’s action must have come as both a surprise and a relief to gay-rights advocates in Utah.

It remains to be seen whether D.C. city leaders will be as accommodating in the other direction. Public statements from city council members—proponents of gay marriage—suggest that most of the council is not interested in broadening religious exemptions in the proposed law.

However difficult it may be to bridge the divide, a good-faith attempt to find some common ground would be in everyone’s best interest. Losing the social services provided by the Catholic Church would be disastrous for thousands of Washington’s poor, including the third of the city’s homeless population now served by Catholic Charities.

As Americans continue to confront the tensions between gay rights and religious liberty in communities across the country, we might want to keep in mind the admonition of Roger Williams to his Puritan opponent John Cotton more than 300 years ago: Those who are at the helm should remember what it was like to be in the hatches.

As friends and foes of gay marriage will soon discover, how we treat others where we are in the majority may well determine how we are treated where we are in the minority.

Charles C. Haynes is senior scholar at the First Amendment Center, 555 Pennsylvania Ave., N.W., Washington, D.C. 20001. Web: firstamendmentcenter.org. E-mail: chaynes@freedomforum.org.

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