May 24, 2007
New Jersey’s law allowing same-sex unions affects more than the two individuals involved in that union. When the law went into effect this past February, the State allowed those who officiate at weddings but do not approve of same-sex unions to opt out of performing such unions. However, if they opted out, they could no longer perform any weddings at all.
Now another aspect of that law is being tested. What about buildings? Mayors and other public officials who officiate at weddings must also officiate at civil unions between same-sex couples. Does the same principle apply to buildings? If a building is used for weddings, does the law require that owners allow civil union ceremonies in the building or run the risk of discrimination? In Ocean Grove, New Jersey, Methodists have a building on the boardwalk that is used for weddings. Will they be forced to allow civil unions to take place there if their building is used for weddings? The State’s public advocate has raised the question.
How far will laws that equate civil unions and marriage, homosexuality and heterosexuality impact our lives? Will religious groups be legally mandated to allow their churches or other buildings to be used for same-sex ceremonies? Will they lose their charitable status if they refuse? These are by no means moot questions.
Already courts have ruled that children in elementary school cannot be exempt from reading books that approve homosexuality. Those who want to educate their children in a way that teaches that marriage is between a man and a woman are already being labeled prejudiced and intolerant. How far will the courts go in stripping away religious liberty?
The very same issue of religious freedom that society faces in terms of human sexuality is being raised in terms of health care. In March 2004, the California Supreme Court ruled that Catholic Charities must include contraceptive coverage in its insurance plan for employees. California is not alone. The Equity in Prescription Insurance and Contraceptive Coverage (EPICC) bill in New York forces fully insured health plans to subsidize all FDA-approved contraceptive pills and devices. There are about twenty states whose laws require that contraceptives be included in prescription coverage for employees.
Catholic healthcare provides major coverage for millions of people. Consistent with Church teaching, Catholic healthcare does not cover contraception, sterilization, in vitro fertilization or abortion. Until recently, the courts have recognized "conscience clause" exemptions for these procedures. Everyone recognized that Catholic hospitals, social services, schools and healthcare were part of the Church’s religious mission. They are governed by the Church’s moral teaching. Therefore, the Church was not forced by law to provide services for those activities she held to be immoral. The courts are now changing the rules. Recent decisions handed down by activist courts will affect hundreds of Catholic institutions.
At a deeper level the issue is this: how much freedom will the courts allow individuals and institutions to live according to their religious beliefs? When the laws are changed in favor of teachings contrary to religion, must religious people be forced to act against their conscience? As courts place more and more decisions under the principle of nondiscrimination and extend this principle to behavior that the Catholic Church -- and other churches as well -- teach as immoral, then the trajectory is set for government to punish those religious people who do not accept or follow the new morality declared by the State.
Tolerance has become the litmus test for civility in modern society. As a result, people of many different faiths have been able to live comfortably next to each other. But society is changing. Tolerance is still extolled
exception. People who hold a moral code that defines marriage as a union between a man and a woman are not to be tolerated. People who see abortion for what it is -- the taking of the life of an innocent child, they are not to be tolerated. People who hold to traditional morality are labeled as bigots and hateful. Tolerance is now intolerance of Catholic morality in the public square. How long before it becomes persecution?
This is the second of three articles that explore new laws and their implication for the freedom of religion.