By Bob Allen
Southern Baptist leaders in two states urged support for a federal law aimed at protecting Americans who oppose same-sex marriage on religious grounds. Critics, however, say that would allow employers to fire women for getting pregnant out of wedlock.
Mark Creech, head of the Christian Action League, a conservative public policy group comprised of denominational bodies including the Baptist State Convention of North Carolina, and Don Hinkle, editor of the Missouri Baptist Convention’s newspaper The Pathway, are among faith leaders urging support of the First Amendment Defense Act.
The bill, reintroduced June 17 by Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah) and Rep. Raúl Labrador (R-Idaho), prohibits the federal government from taking “any discriminatory action against a person, wholly or partially on the basis that such person believes or acts in accordance with a religious belief or moral conviction that marriage is or should be recognized as the union of one man and one woman, or that sexual relations are properly reserved to such a marriage.”
The measure addresses concerns raised when Solicitor General Donald Verrilli conceded in oral arguments in April that if the Supreme Court legalized gay marriage across the country, religious schools’ tax-exempt status could be threatened if the schools opposed gay marriage.
The bill, gaining strong support among conservative Republicans, is being compared to the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, a federal law passed by Congress after the Supreme Court issued a ruling in the 1990s radically different from previous courts on the extent to which the First Amendment protects an individual’s religious liberty.
“This bill is simply a shield against federal agents who might be tempted to use tax treatment, licensing, grants, and the like to coerce or discriminate against individuals or organizations that merely wish to live in light of their religious conviction that marriage is the union of one man and one woman,” National Religious Broadcasters President Jerry Johnson said in a July 7 letter supporting the measure. “I hope that members of Congress on both sides of the aisle will rush to approve legislation defending such basic freedoms.”
Ryan Anderson, a senior research fellow at The Heritage Foundation who researches and writes about marriage and religious liberty, said the First Amendment Defense Act “follows our nation’s long tradition of protecting the natural right to the free exercise of religion and freedom of association as enshrined in our Constitution.”
“It ensures that the federal government respects the rights of individuals, businesses and organizations that wish to act in accordance with their beliefs about marriage,” said Anderson, author of a forthcoming book, Truth Overruled: The Future of Marriage and Religious Freedom, endorsed by Southern Baptist pastor Rick Warren and Russell Moore of the SBC Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission.
While the potential impact of the Supreme Court’s recent 5-4 decision affirming same-sex marriage on religious organizations is debated, the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty says it doesn’t remove the constitutionally mandated separation of church and state.
“Churches will continue to make their own decisions about what kind of marriage ceremonies they conduct,” BJC General Counsel Holly Hollman said in a June 26 article on the BJC website. “Ministers will not be forced to perform same-sex weddings.”
“Harder questions” about religiously affiliated institutions and individuals with religious objections, she said, “will depend on new fact scenarios and the interplay of a variety of laws.”
Americans United for Separation of Church and State recently launched a new initiative called Protect Thy Neighbor to oppose legislation using religion as an excuse to discriminate.
A July 16 Huffington Post article quoted critics saying the language of the First Amendment Protection Act is so broad that it “creates a license to discriminate that would let employers fire women for getting pregnant outside of wedlock.”
Among “discriminatory acts” banned by the government is the withholding or terminating of any federal grant or contract.
A 2014 Mother Jones article pointed out that while federal law generally forbids discrimination against pregnant women, firing unwed teachers who become pregnant is not uncommon for private religious schools.
That’s due to a 2012 Supreme Court ruling that religious employers are protected from certain discrimination lawsuits because of a “ministerial exception” that allows religious organizations to hire or fire over theology or lifestyle an employee tasked with inculcating the organization’s religious values.