Keep Religious Beliefs Out of State Laws

Pastor Joe Keller, of Kanakee, Ill., holds a giant cross as Linda Jernigan, of Chicago, speaks to the crowd as opponents of gay marriage gathered for the "Defend Marriage Lobby Day." (TED SCHURTER/AP)

Pastor Joe Keller, of Kanakee, Ill., holds a giant cross as Linda Jernigan, of Chicago, speaks to the crowd as opponents of gay marriage gathered for the “Defend Marriage Lobby Day.” (TED SCHURTER/AP)

Politics and religion make a dangerous brew. For centuries, political rulers and religious leaders created state-enforced religions, ranging from Aztec high priests to African tribal chiefs to European kings. The gradual shift toward democracy since the French and American revolutions at the end of the 18th century has been accompanied by the slow demise of state religions. More liberty has inevitably meant more freedom from states enforcing the beliefs of one religious denomination.

American revolutionaries led that change. Although most of them believed in a supreme being, they also believed that the state should not enforce any particular religious beliefs on Americans. Thus the First Amendment to our Constitution begins, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof ….”

But separating Christianity from the American state has been a constant struggle. The First Amendment restricted only the federal government until the Supreme Court decided in 1947 to also apply it to the states.

In that decision, Justice Hugo Black wrote, “Neither a state nor the Federal Government can set up a church. Neither can pass laws which aid one religion, aid all religions, or prefer one religion to another.” Liberals tend to interpret the establishment clause as creating a high barrier, a “wall of separation between Church and State” in Thomas Jefferson’s wordsConservatives have argued that the state can encourage general religious belief, such as by allowing prayer in schools, but they agree that the beliefs of a particular denomination must not be favored.

The danger of using the state to enforce narrow religious ideas was apparent last week in the rally against same-sex marriage in Springfield, the Illinois state capitol. The demonstration was conceived as a religious event, organized by the Illinois Family Institute, which calls itself a “ministry” that “promotes and defends Biblical truths”. The IFI’s website listed 16 sites for participants to find busses to Springfield, including 11 churches and one religious school. More than half of the scheduled six hours were designated as prayer rally and prayer walk.

Opponents of same-sex marriage are no longer able to count on broad popular hatred of homosexuals. The traditional claims that gay people are sick and evil are no longer persuasive, as more Americans realize they know, work alongside of, and may even be related to homosexual men and women. That didn’t stop Jim Finnegan, a board member of IFI, from describing gays as “deviant” and “disease-filled”.

But such language will not win any votes. At the Springfield rally, and at other similar events across the country, opponents of gay marriage have been reduced to one argument. The organizers displayed a large cross in front of the Capitol with the words “God Abhors Civil Unions”. Bishop Larry Trotter of a Chicago Baptist church said that same-sex marriage is “against the will, plan and the word of God.”

Like all such claims to know what God likes and doesn’t like, they really mean “I Want to Enforce My Beliefs on You”. That’s exactly what Bishop Thomas Paprocki did within the entire Springfield diocese. He barred anyone wearing a symbol supportive of gay marriage from attending Catholic Mass. Paprocki said that anyone who prays for same-sex marriage would be asked to leave the Springfield Cathedral.

Monsignor Carl Kemme of Springfield called marriage “God’s design, not man’s”. But he’s wrong. In the US, marriage is a state institution. No religious intervention is necessary to get married and then to enjoy the significant benefits of being officially recognized by all public entities as a couple.

There is no agreement among religious Americans about what God thinks of civil unions or same-sex marriage. While some religious leaders proclaimed in Springfield that God stood behind their beliefs, others have proclaimed the same thing for their opposite beliefs. Many major Protestant denominations support same-sex marriage, including the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America, the largest Lutheran denomination in the US, as well as Unitarians, United Church of Christ, and the Quakers. Some denominations are divided about homosexuality and gay marriage, like the United Methodist Church. Although official Methodist doctrine does not allow same-sex marriage, retired Bishop Melvin Talbert officiated on Saturday at a gay wedding in Alabama.

Bishop Paprocki’s own spiritual leader, Pope Francis, appears to be moving the Catholic Church away from its harshly critical stance toward homosexuality. In an interview last month, the Pope said, “If a homosexual person is of good will and is in search of God, I am no one to judge….We cannot insist only on issues related to abortion, gay marriage and the use of contraceptive methods…. it is not necessary to talk about these issues all the time.” Most Catholics in America who attend weekly Mass support legalizing same-sex marriage, including about two-thirds of those aged 18-64.

steve hochstadtThe opponents of same-sex marriage wish to do what our Constitution forbids: have their minority religious beliefs be state law. Governments which enforce one interpretation of religious doctrine are inherently undemocratic. Those who advocate other beliefs are not only excluded from worship, but become enemies of the state. The law of the land must be for everyone.

Steve Hochstadt
Taking Back Our Lives

Tuesday, 29 October 2013


  1. JoeWeinstein says


    Thanks for your article and also your very cogent reply to commenter Harry.

    The First Amendment guarantees our freedom both of religion and from religion. It requires our governments not to go out of their way either way in response to what some folks believe on account of their religions. Government must have its own reasons to do things and is obliged NEITHER to accommodate NOR to violate religious beliefs.

    Some folks mistakenly think that this ‘separation of church and state’ even requires government to do the opposite of whatever those folks imagine the church wants. Not so. If a new religion came along whose central catechism is: ‘2+2=4’, government would NOT have to re-do its math, nor would it have to reject that proposition just because it’s ‘religious’.

    Back to same-sex marriage: in my opinion the crucial point is that if two competent adults A and B are a union – i.e. have voluntarily, solemnly and publicly recognized each other as closest kin for life – both A and B are entitled, as a basic human right, to recognition by EVERY authority that they ARE closest kin. Failure to recognize ANY union – whether on grounds of same-gender or different-ethnicity or color or any feature of the partners – is an attack on human rights. If a state fails to recognize your union with your chosen partner, in effect it is saying that someone else that you did not choose at all for that role is instead your closest kin.

    The Supreme Court decisions on DOMA and Prop 8 back in summer may have seemed progressive to some, but they were in fact terribly regressive. They were based on lack of any heed to basic human rights – including the real content of the constitution’s Due Process and Equal Protection clauses – in favor of arcane considerations of state vs federal rights. The Court justices came far closer to the nasty pro-slavery legalism of Dred Scott 1857 than to the common-sense insight of Brown 1954 (that segregation as a public PRACTICE, WHETHER OR NOT enshrined in a state’s law, is inherently unconstitutional).

  2. harry says

    I have always thought that the US operated under a group of civil laws that were not religious. That same civil government was not to pass laws that required a religion to do things against their religion. Thus the federal governments or states could pass laws allowing civil unions as our group of laws are civil in nature. I would suggest that the question is where do you want to draw the line. Shall the states pass laws that cause religious groups to alter their customs? Do you want the state to be able to pass a law that requires a church to marry two men or two women? I would rather let the churches marry whom ever they wish and let the civil governments create civil unions between whom ever they wish.
    I feel the civil government should have been conducting civil unions for years. We do have a civil government so what was the question?
    Before you get too offended by my question, I should declare I have a married daughter with a female mate and they are not of the same ethnic race.

    • Steve Hochstadt says

      Dear Harry,

      I am not offended by your question, because I don’t understand what you are asking. I agree that churches should marry whomever they wish and the state should marry whomever they wish, within certain guidelines (above a certain age, etc.). A civil union is not a marriage. States and the federal government provide all kinds of rights to married people which are not granted to people in civil unions. Allowing gay marriage as a civil right does not force any church to marry anyone they don’t want to marry. The religious people I wrote about above want to prevent the state from marrying people they don’t want to marry. That’s what I object to. It is not a question of the state passing laws forcing religious groups to alter their customs; it is the religious groups who want to enforce their customs on everyone.

      Steve Hochstadt

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