Christian individuals and institutions across the country are worried that they will face government discrimination if the Supreme Court mandates government recognition of same-sex marriage. The fear that the protection of Christians’ exercise of religion will be eroded by such a decision is based not only on the record of the many Christian business owners successfully sued for refusing to violate their deeply held beliefs, but also on statements made by US Solicitor General Donald Verrilli before the Supreme Court. When asked by Justice Alito if religious schools who refused to accept the proposed new definition of marriage would be in danger of losing tax-exempt status, Verrilli replied, ““It’s certainly going to be an issue. I don’t deny that. I don’t deny that, Justice Alito. It is it is going to be an issue.”
There are, however, still many people in the Federal government working to sustain America’s historic religious freedom protections. Senator Mike Lee of Utah is leading the charge. In mid-December 2013, Senator Lee and eleven other co-sponsors introduced the “Marriage and Religious Freedom Act” which would prevent “the government from denying any person or group tax-exempt status for exercising their religious conscience rights.” This Wednesday (June 3) Senator Lee announced that he intends to re-introduce the bill, perhaps with a change of name and with minor changes to make the wording more clear.
He explained that his bill was different from the recent Indiana bill, noting that it was more narrowly tailored and merely prevented the government from taking adverse action against those with religious objections to same-sex marriage. He explained that the purpose of the tax-exempt status is to keep the government out of the business of churches. The tax-exempt status is not a benefit granted by the government, but a reflection of the first amendment. He stated he was hearing a lot of support as people began to understand the nature of the problem and to see that government interference is a real possibility. He said that this religious freedom protection is “simply an American issue.”
With him at the press conference was Dr. Keith Wiebe of the American Association of Christian Schools, Dr. Jerry Johnson – President of National Religious Broadcasters and former president of Criswell College, Dr. Samuel Oliver- President of Union University, and Travis Weber – Director of the Center for Religious Liberty at the Family Research Council. Senator Lee spoke of the fear induced by Solicitor General Verrilli’s words and the importance of enshrining in law President Obama’s post-Windsor promise that the government is “not going to force churches to do same-sex weddings.”
Dr. Wiebe emphasized the importance of religious schools being able to operate and teach according to long-standing deeply held beliefs – including belief in natural marriage and that sex is appropriate only within such marriage. Religious beliefs are central to the mission of such organizations. He argued that, without the protection of Senator Lee’s bill, churches’ and religious schools’ tax-exempt status, accreditation, and teacher certifications will be in jeopardy. Dr. Jerry Johnson expressed much the same warning and highlighted the difference between religious freedom which is explicitly enshrined in the Bill of Rights and sexual and marriage rights which are not. He claimed “Religious liberty trumps all.”
Dr. Samuel Oliver noted that natural marriage is a belief deeply rooted in Biblical history and thousands of years of Judeo-Christian civilization. He noted that President Obama’s own views were in accord with that history until very recently. Dr. Oliver stressed the importance of religious liberty noting that Baptists like himself have always stood for religious freedom and were often persecuted – even in the United States. He also pointed out the practical problems of forcing the closure of religious institutions asking if state institutions are equipped to handle the influx of students from 29,000 religious schools and 17,000 religious colleges and universities. He stressed that eliminating religious education as an option was a form of mind control by the state. Travis Weber spoke of the danger to the common good posed by preventing religious people from doing all the good work they do.
It is encouraging that America’s freedoms are still being defended by those in government. Christians and all those interested in the protection of religious liberty should voice their support of Senator Lee and his bill. His previous bill had been endorsed by the United States Conference Of Catholic Bishops, Family Research Council, National Organization For Marriage, Heritage Action, Concerned Women For America, The Ethics And Religious Liberty Commission Of The Southern Baptist Convention, and Liberty Counsel Action. Vital freedoms are at stake, and Senator Lee’s courageous stand deserves support.