SCOTUS up angle1


By BJC Staff Reports and Baptist News Global

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled June 26 that the Constitution does not permit the government to deny marriage benefits to same-sex couples that are available to married couples of the opposite sex, and it recognized religious opposition will remain. When questioned about the ruling, the IRS said it does not pose any immediate threat to the tax-exempt status of religious colleges and universities.

Writing for the majority in Obergefell v. Hodges, Justice Anthony Kennedy said it is unconstitutional for a state to deny same-sex couples benefits of marital status including taxation, inheritance and property rights, hospital access, the authority to make medical decisions, adoption rights, health insurance and more.

“The limitation of marriage to opposite-sex couples may long have seemed natural and just, but its inconsistency with the central meaning of the fundamental right to marry is now manifest,” Kennedy wrote. “With that knowledge must come the recognition that laws excluding same-sex couples from the marriage right impose stigma and injury of the kind prohibited by our basic charter.”

In the decision, Kennedy emphasized that groups and individuals who adhere to religious doctrines “may continue to advocate with utmost, sincere conviction that, by divine precepts, same-sex marriage should not be condoned.”

“The First Amendment ensures that religious organizations and persons are given proper protection as they seek to teach the principles that are so fulfilling and so central to their lives and faiths, and to their own deep aspirations to continue the family structure they have long revered,” Kennedy opined. “The same is true of those who oppose same-sex marriage for other reasons.”

“In turn, those who believe allowing same-sex marriage is proper or indeed essential, whether as a matter of religious conviction or secular belief, may engage those who disagree with their view in an open and searching debate,” Kennedy wrote. “The Constitution, however, does not permit the state to bar same-sex couples from marriage on the same terms as accorded to couples of the opposite sex.”

In an initial assessment of the decision, BJC General Counsel Holly Hollman noted the Court’s majority “respectfully acknowledges that some deeply held and long-standing religious beliefs oppose same-sex marriage.”

“In doing so, I believe Justice Kennedy was trying to quell fears that religious beliefs at odds with the Court’s view of same-sex marriage are beyond the pale of civil discourse,” Hollman said. “In heated public debates over marriage equality, religious beliefs have not always been treated so respectfully.”

Some legal discussions analyzing the decision turn to what impact it could have on the tax-exempt status of religious colleges and universities that oppose same-sex marriage. During oral arguments, Justice Samuel Alito asked if such schools could lose their tax status if the Court ruled in favor of same-sex marriage.

At a Congressional hearing in July, the IRS put some fears to rest. Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, asked IRS Commissioner John Koskinen if he could pledge that the agency would not “take any action to remove the tax-exempt status from religious colleges and universities” based the schools’ belief that marriage is between a man and woman. Koskinen said he can make that commitment as long as he is in office. He did note that changes in public policy could lead to a re-evaluation of the position in the future, but that would involve a long process that includes public notice and comment.

The BJC has resources on the decision, its relationship to religious liberty and its potential impact. A podcast, articles and a 2-page handout are available on our website.

From the July/August 2015 Report from the Capital. Click here to read the next story.

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