Religious Freedom and Gay Marriage:  (Un)happily Ever After?

Religious Freedom and Gay Marriage:  (Un)happily Ever After?

Jacob Hess, Ph.D., Director, Village Square Salt Lake City; Partner, Living Room Conversations

Note:  Thanks to Kendall Wilcox for his substantial help in shaping and improving this essay.

The Mormon Church is “idiotic”…”ridiculous”…”illogical” and “schizophrenic” to make such “fear-based” arguments.  So erupted the Facebook comments in response to news of a joint amicus brief to the Supreme Court submitted in behalf of several churches (including the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints) – one of a record 148 briefs issued.

As a believing Mormon, my tendency – like most people facing accusations – was to push back. But I also sensed there was a lot more to understand, so I reached out Kendall Wilcox, a thoughtful person I very much respect who identifies as both Mormon and gay: “would you be open to co-hosting a Living Room Conversation with me focused on this latest amicus brief signed by the LDS Church?”

“Absolutely” Kendall responded – “let’s do it.”  Two weeks later, we sat in a living room with several others we had each invited, reflecting diverse perspectives. In total, this included two Mormon men who identified as gay, one Mormon couple supportive of gay marriage – and three other Mormons with concerns about gay marriage.

The contrasts were striking from early on. One woman spoke of her new-found belief in marriage equality as a kind of enlightenment that thrilled her.  By contrast, a conservative man got teary as he spoke quietly about praying the day of the Supreme Court proceedings, feeling with concern the enormity of an affirmative decision.

Before diving more into the question at hand, we intentionally spent the first hour with chips, hummus and a round of more personal sharing about what motivated us in life and our larger concerns about society. This humanizing seemed to help as we dove deeper in our second hour together, with Kendall inviting everyone to share their thoughts about the amicus brief and the Mormon involvement in it:  “Is there anything that stood out to you about the arguments in the brief? Are there any questions you have for others who may feel differently about this issue than you?”

For those unfamiliar with  amicus brief in question, it details concerns of conservative religious institutions at what gay marriage might mean for religious freedom over the long-term – especially if the Supreme Court rules that “traditional marriage laws are grounded in animus” (or hostility). This includes a demeaning of religious belief in a way that “would stigmatize us as fools or bigots, akin to racists” – leading to intensifying “assaults on our religious institutions and our rights of free exercise, speech, and association.”

Given the LGBT community’s long history of stigma and hostility, concerns about future stigma and hostility from the religious community can naturally feel hollow and disingenuous – seen as perhaps a distracting attempt to preserve the status quo.

But for those of us who actually hold the fears – including three of us that night – these concerns are anything but an obfuscating distraction. They are very much real to us.  And my own question for the group was whether any concerns about future limits on religious freedom raised in the amicus brief felt at all legitimate to those in support of gay marriage.

It’s been common to hear hopeful sentiments during the public debate on gay marriage emphasizing ways that religious freedom and gay marriage can get along together just fine. One marriage equality leader recently argued  that “protections for gay and transgender people in housing and the workplace can gracefully coexist with the rights of people of faith. One does not exist at the expense of the other.” I myself have sometimes hoped that a final decision regarding gay marriage would actually allow the various communities to move forward and focus on learning to live together.

A surprising consensus in our conversation, however, was that the conflict would likely worsen – and even get “ugly.”  An illustrative brief from the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops argued that a decision affirming gay marriage would “create church state conflict for generations to come.”

Kendall clarified that this doesn’t mean we shouldn’t move forward with gay marriage and argued that the inevitable conflicts ahead were not sufficient cause to deny gay couples their right to marry the person they love.  From his perspective, these difficulties were necessary growing pains required for society to move to a better place.

Half of us in the room felt otherwise – a microcosm of the larger divergence in perspective across the country. While one part of society celebrates gay marriage as a mark of great remarkable progress – the other part deeply laments the move as a step in the wrong direction.

Larger disagreements aside, we agreed as a group that this conflict wasn’t going away.  What exactly this would look like was another story.

Kendall emphasized that first amendment protections in the U.S. were strong.  If and when gay marriage becomes the law of the land, he envisioned a few years of realigning some legal standards and some ugly debates, but ultimately felt confident that we would ultimately find a way to get along just fine. He later underscored that this need not be a zero sum game – and that even with a shift in marriage law, churches will never be forced to marry a gay couple nor will they be forced to stop preaching that homosexual activity is a sin.

Conservatives in the room weren’t so sure about this. Some expressed uncertainty at how strongly existing religious protections would come into play – and pointed out instances of pastors being jailed in other countries for preaching against homosexuality (admittedly where religious freedoms are more limited).

Earlier that week, the Solicitor General of the United States had also admitted in oral argument that religious schools could lose their tax exemption for teaching against gay marriage. So it remained an open question for many of us:  how far might limitations on religious freedom go in the U.S.?  In a day when conservative leaders have been pressured out of their jobs and continue to face heat for speaking out on marriage, concerns seemed at least justified. I myself have wondered whether I will ever be able to find an academic job as an openly religious and conservative scholar.

Kendall later reflected that it came as a genuine surprise that the fears of the conservatives in the room were real and “not simply facile contrivances that they were echoing from their favorite television pundits.”  It reminded him, he added, that no matter where the fear was coming from and how true they turn out to be, “these worries are real to those who feel them and it is my duty to them to respect that real emotion and consider it more carefully when responding to them.”

Disagreements will continue to exist on what lies ahead – including among conservatives. While I told the group that I didn’t think Mormons would ever be forced to accept gay marriage in temples – another conservative participant quoted the Catholic Archbishop Father George as saying: “I expect to die in bed, my successor will die in prison and his successor will die a martyr in the public square. His successor will pick up the shards of a ruined society and slowly help rebuild civilization, as the church has done so often in human history.”

Is this specter simply an over-dramatized, over-blown fear – like some see the amicus brief in question?  Or on a philosophical and cultural level, are we experiencing what one Christian gay friend calls a “fight to the death” – with one side or the other necessarily vanquished in the end?

Hyperbole aside, it’s factually true that many people can and do anticipate a final winner sometime in the future – including both Christians looking to Jesus’ coming and the gay activists seeing a new society realized.

Others have more optimism about what lies ahead. As Kendall pointed out, “the issue of religious liberty need not be one that pits people of faith against LGBT people, but rather brings us together in dialogue and reconciliation.”

From this perspective, whatever happens long-term, our work now is finding a way to move forward together.  And there’s a lot to figure out!

So maybe it’s important to keep talking together, then?  Self-guided models such as Living Room Conversations and Circles of Empathy are ready to be applied in virtually any community, by anyone seeking a more extensive and productive conversation.

Rather than simply dismissing the concerns (of either side) as mere rhetoric, maybe it’s time to hear each other’s concerns more deeply – and to begin seeing other’s fears, as C. Terry Warner states, “as real as our own.”

As any good therapist knows, acknowledging another’s fears are not the same as agreeing with them.  But the empathy created in hearing each other out more fully, can lead to other, more practical cooperation – such as the recent Utah legislative compromise that incrementally advances gay rights while simultaneously affirming religious freedom.

Other heartening examples of the fruit of these conversations in our own community include the Growth and Reconciliation Project and the Mormon-focused Circling the Wagons conferences.

So whether you think gay marriage is the ‘end of the world’ or the ‘beginning of a new world’ – maybe we can agree on one thing:  We have a lot more to learn and understand together!

Anyone up for a living room conversation?

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