Last week, California passed a law that penalizes organizations that refuse to provide benefits to employees’ same-sex domestic partners or spouses on the same terms they provide benefits to employees’ opposite-sex domestic partners or spouses. Known as SB 117, the law excludes those organizations from competing for state contracts worth $100,000 or more.
SB 117 further illustrates how nondiscrimination laws factor in to debates regarding same-sex marriage and other legal statuses for homosexual relationships. Same-sex marriage, domestic partnerships, and civil unions confer state recognition on same-sex relationships. Nondiscrimination laws force private citizens and organizations to get on board.
Some nondiscrimination laws contain at least certain protections for religious or moral conscience on these kinds of issues. SB 117 does not.
Of course, many state contractors in California likely will have no moral or religious objection to providing the same benefits to employees’ same-sex partners as to employees’ opposite-sex partners. Free-market forces provide powerful incentives for employers to respond to evolving demands from qualified employees.
However, some organizations might believe that providing benefits to employees’ same-sex partners or spouses violates religious or moral beliefs about marriage as one man and one woman. Under laws like SB 117, those organizations could be forced to stop competing for state contracts, to violate their religious or moral convictions, or to cut spousal / partner benefits across the board.
When lawmakers fail to protect religious or moral conscience, nondiscrimination laws can turn “culture wars” into “conscience wars” by using state power to increase the stakes of private citizens’ sticking to religious or moral convictions about issues like marriage and family. To justify that costly outcome, watch for proponents of new policies to abandon arguments grounded in liberty and state neutrality in favor of highly moralistic arguments.
This is not surprising: Everyone has a worldview, and everyone inevitably brings that worldview to bear on issues of public policy, especially issues involving family, marriage, and sexuality. The key point is that citizens with opposing moral viewpoints should feel equally free to make their voices heard.