The United Church of Christ has brought a lawsuit against the state of North Carolina, claiming the state’s marriage amendment violates their free exercise of religion. The amendment, passed in 2012 with over 60 percent of North Carolinians voting for it, defines marriage as the union of a man and a woman.
In fact, the amendment made it clear that by defining what marriage is for public policy purposes, it left citizens free to form other contracts:
Marriage between one man and one woman is the only domestic legal union that shall be valid or recognized in this State. This section does not prohibit a private party from entering into contracts with another private party; nor does this section prohibit courts from adjudicating the rights of private parties pursuant to such contracts.
It’s hard to see then how the marriage amendment is violating anyone’s free exercise of religion. Defining marriage for state law and policy as the union of a man and a woman does not restrict anyone’s freedom, nor does it prevent any religious institution or member of the clergy from blessing unions that are not legally recognized as marriages or even from calling them “marriages” and treating them as such.
As a policy matter, marriage exists to bring a man and a woman together as husband and wife to be father and mother to any children their union produces. Marriage is based on the truth that men and women are complementary, the biological fact that reproduction depends on a man and a woman, and the reality that children need both a mother and a father. Marriage is society’s least intrusive means of ensuring the well-being of children as marital breakdown weakens civil society and limited government.
No one has a religious liberty right to have the government redefine marriage to recognize the relationship of their choice in public policy.
This is probably why The New York Times points out that “The denomination argues that a North Carolina law criminalizing the religious solemnization of weddings without a state-issued marriage license violates the First Amendment.” But the marriage amendment didn’t criminalize anything. It isn’t the marriage amendment, then, that they have concern about, but a different law, which they claim criminalizes solemnizing weddings that the state doesn’t recognize.
But here again they are wrong. The law in question, as Ramesh Ponnuru points out, is about “the conditions for performing a valid [state-recognized civil] marriage, not trying to prevent people from holding a ceremony that they may (though the state does not) consider as forming a marriage.” Indeed, the law reads:
Every minister, officer, or any other person authorized to solemnize a marriage under the laws of this State, who marries any couple without a license being first delivered to that person, as required by law, or after the expiration of such license, or who fails to return such license to the register of deeds within 10 days after any marriage celebrated by virtue thereof, with the certificate appended thereto duly filled up and signed, shall forfeit and pay two hundred dollars ($200.00) to any person who sues therefore, and shall also be guilty of a Class 1 misdemeanor.
This law isn’t talking about ministers celebrating marriages in churches for solely religious purposes, but about ministers who are acting as agents of the state to celebrate a state-recognized marriage. But, again, there’s no religious liberty right to have the relationship of your choice recognized as a marriage by the state. And there’s no law preventing churches from celebrating marriage however they see fit.
Actual religious liberty violations do take place in the marriage context. In a growing number of incidents, the redefinition of marriage and state policies on sexual orientation have led to intolerance and intimidation of citizens who believe that marriage unites a man and a woman and that sexual relations are properly reserved for marriage. Now these citizens are facing a new wave of government coercion and discrimination.
Families across the country are being hauled into court for living by their belief that marriage is the union of a man and a woman. Cake makers, florists, photographers, family bakeries, and adoption agencies, among others, have faced penalties and lawsuits or been driven out of business for working in accordance with their faith.
State and federal policy must respect Americans’ ability to live and work in keeping with their beliefs about marriage. While Americans are free to live as they choose, no one should be compelled against conscience to facilitate a same-sex sexual bond.