The Homosexual Debate and Religious Freedom
The General Counsel for the for the American Jewish Congress, Marc D. Stern warns of the "The granddaddy of all battles", the coming fight for tax examptions for those who hold to orthodox positions concerning human sexuality and marriage.
Opponents of same-sex marriage cheer and celebrate in the halls of the Massachusetts Statehouse after legislators took the first step toward adopting a state constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage but legalizing civil unions during a state constitutional convention in Boston in late March. (CNS photo from Reuters)
Marc D. Stern, general counsel for the American Jewish Congress, gave the closing talk at a daylong briefing in New York on the views of various religious traditions about homosexuality.
"The granddaddy of all battles will be fought over tax exemptions," Stern said.
He cited a case in which a religious organization that rented out its gazebo for weddings refused to rent it for a same-sex marriage and as a result had its property tax exemption suspended. The case remains under appeal, Stern said.
"The question is, can you put a religious practice into effect in the face of a contrary statute?" he said. Different courts have come up with different answers, Stern added, and the question does not seem likely to be resolved soon.
"This is not an abstract debate on principles," Stern said, describing a number of other situations currently or recently in litigation:
-- The Sea Scouts, a branch of the Boy Scouts of America, was denied use of a public wharf in California because Boy Scouts do not permit homosexuals as leaders.
-- In Canada, where same-sex marriage is legal, a religious organization's billboard quoting from the Bible that homosexuality is "an abomination" was ruled to be "hate speech."
"Around the world, many countries are following the European model, which says hate speech is entirely unprotected and trumps religious liberty," Stern said.
-- An evangelical student wearing a T-shirt that said "Homosexuality is a sin" was suspended from school because the shirt challenged "the essence" of some of the other students. His suspension was upheld in court.
"Whether attacks on a person's 'essence' are reason to deny free speech is questionable," the attorney said.
-- A physician who refused to treat a lesbian couple who wanted artificial insemination was sued by the couple and lost in court.
"Are we going to ask doctors to sign documents that violate their doctrinal beliefs" as a condition of licensure? Stern asked.
-- An Orthodox Jewish university that designated certain housing for married couples only was accused of discrimination for denying a same-sex couple a place there and eventually was forced to open the housing to any couple.
Stern said some worry that in jurisdictions that allow same-sex marriages, clergy will be forced to perform the ceremonies, but he called that "a red herring."
"That does not appear to be on the horizon," he said.
The American Jewish Congress lawyer said the "benefits problem will be the next big battle" in church-state relations. Religious organizations in California and New York currently are challenging legislation in their states that would require them to provide contraceptive coverage as a benefit to employees.
The "great unanswered question" in those cases is whether organizations such as Catholic Charities, religiously affiliated hospitals and church-owned camps are considered to be religious organizations under the law, Stern said.
The answer could have effects throughout the U.S., he added, because "not-for-profit organizations affiliated with religious organizations make up a large part of our economy."
But in the area of homosexual rights, new issues are arising every day, Stern said.
In New York, for example, a school superintendent and the chief financial officer in a school district were accused of stealing funds and the superintendent refused to testify against his colleague, citing "marital privilege" because they were same-sex partners.
The press briefing at New York's University Club was sponsored by the Fordham Center on Religion and Culture and the Jesuit-run university's Curran Center for American Catholic Studies.
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Copyright (c) 2007 Catholic News Service/U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops
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