There are few issues that cause church leaders more concern than the implications of gay rights upon religious liberty. From courtrooms to family rooms, our society is debating these questions and the outcomes are having significant ramifications on how pastors teach, lead, and counsel. To help us better understand the debate, I have invited Gene Robinson, the first openly gay bishop in the Episcopal Church, to write a series of articles to identify where conservative and liberal Christians can find common ground on these matters, and where we still disagree. Robinson is now retired from ministry and working with the Center for American Progress, a progressive research and policy organization, on issues of faith and gay rights. -Skye Jethani
Religious liberty is a hot topic these days, cited in discussions and debates about access to the institution of marriage by gay and lesbian couples. Such an expansion of marriage to include gay couples is often seen by some religious conservatives as an infringement on the religious liberty of believers, concerns which are sometimes not taken seriously by religious liberals.
That being said, let's be clear that religious liberals also hold religious liberty as a treasured and historical value. It just may be that we mean different things by "religious liberty," and therefore may disagree about whether it is under attack. But first, some common ground.
Should marriage equality become the law of the land, one thing that religious conservatives and liberals can agree on is that religious institutions will still be able to refuse to authorize, bless or in any way support same-gender marriage. My own home state of New Hampshire was the first to include, in the body of our marriage equality legislation, a restatement of what has always been true under the First Amendment: no religious institution or clergy member will be required to marry same sex couples or to bless/sanction any such civil relationship. As a clergyman, I cannot be forced to marry any couple who comes to me asking to be married, whether gay or straight. I may refuse to marry a couple for any reason, or for no reason. I don't even have to give a reason. And I can't be sued for my refusal.
This right-of-refusal is an important ramification of the separation of church and state. It is an aspect of religious freedom for which I am willing to fight (if it actually were under attack) alongside my conservative brothers and sisters of the faith. Religious exemptions based on the First Amendment provide common ground for religious conservatives and liberals. We stand together in this.
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