Decorative Scales of Justice in the CourtroomWritten by Don Byrd

Now that the Supreme Court’s ruling in Obergefell has resolved the legal issue of whether same-sex couples enjoy a constitutional right to marry, advocates are shifting their focus to questions of religious liberty for those who seek to exercise a religious objection to same-sex marriage.

With the weekend to digest the news, and after closely reading the BJC’s resource page on religious liberty and the same-sex marriage cases, here are four important principles worth thinking about as this conversation continues:

1. The First Amendment protects the right of churches, clergy, and religious communities to conduct marriage ceremonies in accordance with their religious beliefs. Attorneys on both sides of the Obergefell case agreed that this right would not be endangered by the Supreme Court’s ruling. Indeed, no state that previously recognized same-sex marriage required churches to host, or clergy to officiate, same-sex weddings.

2. More than just religious belief, the Constitution protects religious exercise. Religious liberty rights extend beyond one’s home and house of worship. Conflict will undoubtedly arise between the civil rights of same-sex couples and the religious liberty rights of those who object on religious grounds. That is not to say how any individual conflict should be resolved, but supporters of same-sex marriage would be mistaken to dismiss or deny any impact on religious liberty.

3. The Court’s same-sex marriage decision need not, and should not, place in jeopardy the tax-exempt status of houses of worship and other pervasively sectarian institutions. While the Court upheld the revocation of Bob Jones University’s tax-exempt status in 1983 for banning interracial dating on campus, that ruling was explicitly limited to “religious schools, not . . . churches or other purely religious institutions.”

4. The Court’s ruling is an occasion for houses of worship and ministers to think purposefully about the “tangled relationship” between civil and religious marriages. As the BJC’s Holly Hollman wrote, “churches should decide and make clear whether they are performing marriages by the authority of the state or a greater power.”

As with many Supreme Court decisions, Obergefell is as much the start of a new conversation as it is the end of an old debate. From a religious liberty perspective, I view the ruling as a welcome opportunity to reclaim core principles, and re-examine institutional roles in the church-state relationship.

Most importantly, all should remember that the issues at stake here are deeply personal and heartfelt for those on both sides. The debate will proceed best if the tone is respectful, and the content is informed and mindful of the rights and interests of all involved.