WASHINGTON (BP) -- New legislation designed to protect freedom of conscience regarding the definition of marriage should receive support even from legislators who favor same-sex unions, says Southern Baptist ethicist Russell D. Moore.
The Marriage and Religious Freedom Act, H.R. 3133, would bar the federal government from denying tax exemption to, or withdrawing it from, individuals and institutions that define marriage as only between a man and a woman.
Moore, president of the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission (ERLC), called for "all members of Congress, whatever their views on marriage, to vote for religious liberty" by supporting the bill.
"Skirmishes all over the country demonstrate that this bill is needed," Moore told Baptist Press. "As Americans, we may disagree about sexual morality or even about the definition of marriage, but we have a First Amendment that guarantees freedom of conscience and the free exercise of religion to everyone. We cannot allow the culture war to extinguish the natural right of religious liberty, a right for which our forebears fought so hard."
While the proposal affects only federal tax law, recent events in various states have demonstrated religious freedom rights are under threat in the face of the expanding legalization of same-sex marriage. For instance:
-- The New Mexico Supreme Court rejected Aug. 22 the religious free exercise arguments of Jonathan and Elaine Huguenin, a Christian couple who operate a photography business, and ruled they violated the state's ban on sexual orientation discrimination by refusing to photograph a same-sex ceremony.
-- Aaron and Melissa Klein closed their Oregon bakery Aug. 31 after a lesbian couple filed a complaint with the state government because the Kleins declined to bake a wedding cake and invoked their Christian beliefs as the reason. Protests from gay marriage advocates followed the Kleins' refusal, and the state is conducting an investigation of the couple, who moved the business to their home.
Like Moore, the bill's sponsor -- Rep. Raul Labrador, R.-Idaho -- rejected any idea the measure is politically partisan.
It is not a "Republican or Democrat issue," Labrador said upon introducing the bill Sept. 19.
"Regardless of our ideology, we can all agree about the importance of religious liberty in America," Labrador said in a written statement. "Our bill will protect freedom of conscience for those who believe marriage is the union of one man and one woman."
Some same-sex marriage proponents did not agree such legislation is needed.
"Our Constitution and laws already strongly safeguard" religious liberty, said Allison Herwitt, legislative director for the Human Rights Campaign, the country's largest organization advocating for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender rights.
Herwitt charged the bill's purpose is "simply to let federal employees, contractors and grantees refuse to do their jobs or fulfill the terms of their taxpayer-funded contracts because they have a particular religious view" about legally married, same-sex couples.
The fate of religious liberty with the ascendancy of same-sex marriage has been a topic of debate for years; but the threat to freedom of conscience became more of a reality in June, when the Supreme Court struck down a section of a federal law defining marriage as only between a man and a woman. In that 5-4 opinion, justices said the 1996 Defense of Marriage Act DOMA violated "equal protection" under the Constitution by refusing to recognize gay marriages.
The ruling opened the way for same-sex couples to access federal benefits previously limited to heterosexual couples. Since then, the Obama administration has been making changes to clarify gay married couples will be treated the same as heterosexual married couples for purposes of such things as taxes and Medicare coverage in nursing homes.
The Marriage and Religious Freedom Act, which has 62 cosponsors, will make certain the federal government will not, according to Labrador's office:
-- Withhold or nullify tax exemption under Sec. 501 of the IRS Tax Code. Most religious institutions are 501 (c) organizations;
-- Reject a tax deduction for any charitable gift to or by an individual;
-- Refuse or withhold a federal benefit, or
-- Bar an individual from receiving "any federal grant, contract, loan, license, certification, accreditation, employment, or other similar position or status."
In addition to the ERLC, other organizations endorsing the bill, according to Labrador's office, are the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, the Family Research Council, the National Organization for Marriage, Focus on the Family, Concerned Women for America and Heritage Action.
Twelve states and the District of Columbia have legalized same-sex marriage.
Andrew Walker, the ERLC's director of policy studies, has written an analysis of the bill that can be accessed online at erlc.com
Tom Strode is Washington bureau chief. Get Baptist Press headlines and breaking news on Twitter (@BaptistPress
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