Religious Freedom Not at Stake

By Sam Wolfe (also published at
This week could see the resolution of decades of battles over marriage equality in Hawaii. The legislative votes appear sufficient for passage of the Hawaii Marriage Equality Act, and the governor is poised to endorse the law.

Meanwhile, LDS Church leaders in Hawaii issued a second letter last week underscoring opposition to marriage equality because “marriage of a man and a woman is essential to the well-being of children, families, and society,” — and citing concern over “inadequate” safeguards for “constitutionally guaranteed religious freedoms” that an earlier letter indicated as a risk of “religious organizations and officials” being “required to support or perform same-sex marriages or from having to host same-sex marriages or celebrations in their facilities” as well as a need to protect “individuals and small businesses from being required to assist in promoting or celebrating same-sex marriages.”

But the current legislation assures what the First Amendment already secures: No church or religious leader will be required to host or perform a wedding that offends their beliefs; except that all businesses, including churches that provide facilities for marriage celebrations to the general public and for profit, remain subject to Hawaii’s public accommodations law, which has been in place since 2006. That law already applies to civil unions which provide marriage equivalency under Hawaii state law since January 2012; yet the sky has not fallen. Marriage equality is becoming the norm and similarly dire forecasts, such as in California, of loss of freedom ensuing from marriage equality, simply has not occurred. Instead, freedom is increased for those who are able to marry.

Hawaii’s public accommodations law will continue, as is common, to mean that merchants, hotels, restaurants, and the like may not refuse patrons because of protected characteristics, including sexual orientation. That is as it should be, for if an exemption were allowed for public discrimination to anyone who has an unfavorable view of a lesbian or gay person, then the exception would swallow the rule. You can operate a hotel that serves alcohol while maintaining a belief against drinking; you can be a caterer for a wedding while preferring heterosexual marriage.

What teaching of Jesus justifies creating a legal license to treat some people worse than others even unto turning them away out of dislike of who they are or who they love when we’re taught the Golden Rule, a recognition that each person is created in the image of God?

When marriage is won in Hawaii, the churches will continue meeting, their members will continue marrying and having children. There is no risk of being forced to perform same-sex marriages. There will be no newfangled restriction on doctrine or what may be preached. Churches will remain in full control of standards of membership. Nothing will change legally for heterosexual churchgoers once same-sex couples marry.

As legal equality for LGBT people advances, there is in tandem a growing awareness of room in our communities, and islands, for marriages of all who get engaged; that “our families” include individuals of differing sexual orientations as do our churches; sexual orientation is core to who we are; and we each have differing gifts, roles, and opportunities in life that for every single one of us may not include heterosexual marriage — and that’s okay.

Sam Wolfe is a member of the Affirmation Board and a civil rights attorney for the Southern Poverty Law Center.

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