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Faith in Values: Religious Liberty + Marriage Equality = Harmony, Not Dissension

SOURCE: Bret Hartman/AP Images for Human Rights Campaign

In this image released on Thursday, June 27, 2013, Human Rights Campaign President Chad Griffin speaks during a rally in West Hollywood, California, celebrating the historic rulings from the Supreme Court that Prop 8 is unconstitutional.

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Sometimes the way an issue is framed matters as much as the facts. Take the so-called battle between marriage equality and religious liberty. Many activists against marriage equality claim that the two are inherently opposed to each other. According to their argument, if one side wins, the other loses.

The problem with this oppositional framing is that it isn’t true. In reality, marriage equality and religious liberty can support and strengthen each other. And this is true even when people are conflicted about same-sex marriage. Even then, they still believe that gay and lesbian couples should be treated fairly under the law.

Last week Third Way and the Human Rights Campaign released a national poll that validates these views. According to the poll, a majority of Americans support marriage equality and religious liberty, rather than believing that one threatens the other.

The poll also shows that a majority of Americans support nondiscrimination laws regarding gay and lesbian people and are opposed to any new laws that would deny them services. As for religious exemptions, a majority of Americans believe they should be limited to houses of worship and clergy.

These findings come not a moment too soon. Now that the Supreme Court has overturned the Defense of Marriage Act and states are trending toward legalizing same-sex marriage, many activist opponents see their last, best defense as creating overly broad religious exemptions that will permit them to ignore laws they disagree with, all the while claiming persecution because of their beliefs.

Right now there are lawsuits in several states that are pertinent to this debate. They range from a baker in Oregon and a florist in Washington state to a photographer in New Mexico, all of whom refused to serve gay or lesbian couples because of religious objections to their wedding and marriage.

Let’s be clear about what these businesses—and their activist supporters—want. They want religious exemptions that will trump existing civil rights laws. They want to be able to legally discriminate against gays and lesbians in the name of religion. In their view, florists, bakers, caterers, jewelers, photographers, wedding-dress shop owners, tuxedo-rental owners, and a host of other commercial establishments should be able to turn away gay and lesbian couples without getting sued for discrimination.

Activists often frame their argument as one of “conscience versus convenience.” The argument goes something like this: “My religious faith tells me that it is wrong to bake your wedding cake, take your wedding pictures, or arrange your floral displays because I believe homosexuals marrying is against God’s will. My refusal is a profound issue of conscience for me, while it is one of simple inconvenience for you. In such a dispute, conscience should win.”

For many people, this is a persuasive argument. After all, who would want their wedding pictures taken by a photographer who believes the happy couple is defying the will of God? Who would want to feed their guests wedding cake baked by someone who believes the joyous occasion is ground zero for mortal sin?

I must admit, it’s been challenging to come up with a strong, persuasive rebuttal. After all, it’s usually good to follow one’s conscience. But I found my rebuttal a few months ago when I heard a friend at a conference respond to a fellow panelist who was giving the conscience versus convenience argument as part of a pitch for religious exemptions.

My friend said: “Take the case of the florist who is deeply religious. Let’s say one of his beliefs is that the Jews killed Jesus Christ, which makes it a sin for him to do business with Jewish people. Let’s also say that the florist wants to spare any potential Jewish customers the inconvenience of walking into his store where they will be turned away, so he puts a sign in the window that says ‘No Jews served here.’”

My friend turned to the panelist and asked, “How is that different from not serving gays?” The panelist fumbled for a response, but really, he had nothing to say.

No wonder. Once you change the category from “gay person” to “Jewish person” or to “black person,” the conscience versus convenience argument loses its punch. You start to see that there really is no difference.

That’s the good news from the Third Way and Human Rights Campaign poll. Americans are increasingly seeing that there is no difference—or, to put it another way, that every one of us deserves fair treatment and equal protection under the law.

Sally Steenland is Director of the Faith and Progressive Policy Initiative at the Center for American Progress. Steenland, a best-selling author, former newspaper columnist, and teacher, explores the role of religion and values in the public sphere.

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This is part of a regular column: Faith in Values

For more from the same column, click here