The Respect for Marriage Act is a Disaster for Religious Liberty

David Closson is Director of the Center for Biblical Worldview. This article appeared in WORLD Magazine on July 28, 2022.

Last week, the U.S. House of Representatives passed the so-called Respect for Marriage Act, legislation that would officially repeal the bipartisan Defense of Marriage Act and enshrine into federal law a radical redefinition of marriage. Forty-seven Republicans joined Democrats in passing the bill, leading to speculation that Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer might be able to find enough Republican votes to pass the legislation in the upper chamber.

Although a handful of GOP senators have publicly opposed the bill, the majority have remained noncommittal. A few, including Sens. Susan Collins, Lisa Murkowski, and Rob Portman, have indicated they’ll support it, while others, such as Sens. Joni Ernst and Ron Johnson, are likely “yes” votes. Worth noting is that almost every Republican senator who was serving in 2015 publicly condemned the U.S. Supreme Court’s Obergefell decision that year, which overruled more than 30 state laws and imposed same-sex marriage across the country.

While there are compelling reasons for conservatives and Christians to oppose redefining marriage in federal law (such as not wanting our laws to tell lies about the nature of marriage, the welfare of children, basic principles of federalism, and the history of marriage law), concerns related to religious freedom may be most alarming to a wider audience.

Even before Obergefell, hostility was rising against those with sincerely held religious beliefs about marriage. In 2012, Jack Phillips, a baker in Colorado, was taken to court because he refused to make a custom wedding cake for a same-sex wedding. Barronelle Stutzman, a florist in Washington state, was sued in 2013 for refusing to provide flowers for a same-sex wedding ceremony. Additionally, the New Mexico Supreme Court ruled in 2014 that Elaine and Jonathan Huguenin must photograph a same-sex wedding ceremony despite their religious convictions. These instances, plus many more, illustrate the growing challenges facing those with Biblically informed convictions regarding marriage. As predicted, post-Obergefell, these challenges have become even more acute.

Worth noting is that almost every Republican senator who was serving in 2015 publicly condemned the U.S. Supreme Court’s Obergefell decision that year, which overruled more than 30 state laws and imposed same-sex marriage across the country.

Although the majority opinion in Obergefell stated that “those who adhere to religious doctrines” may continue “to advocate with utmost, sincere conviction” that same-sex marriage should not be condoned, what has happened across the country in the intervening years is exactly what Justice Samuel Alito anticipated would happen in his dissent. At the time, Justice Alito accurately predicted that the court’s decision “will be used to vilify Americans who are unwilling to assent to the new orthodoxy.” He presciently observed that those who disagree about same-sex marriage “will risk being labeled as bigots and treated as such by governments, employers, and schools.”

Since Obergefell, numerous wedding vendors have been intimidated and harassed for declining to violate their conscience and participate in same-sex wedding ceremonies. Some of these cases have gone all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court. Additionally, religious schools have faced lawsuits over nondiscrimination and public accommodation policies. For example, the College of the Ozarks is currently in court, challenging the Biden administration’s directive that forces religious schools to open their dormitories and shared shower spaces to members of the opposite sex or face exorbitant fines. The Biden administration’s recent rule proposal to Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972 that removes protections for religious institutions that adhere to traditional beliefs on marriage and sexuality will likely also generate lawsuits soon.

Faith-based adoption agencies have also faced many challenges post-Obergefell. For example, in 2018, after nearly 95 years of providing adoption and foster care services, Catholic Charities of Buffalo announced the termination of its adoption program because of New York’s requirement that would have compelled the charity to place children with same-sex couples. The state refused to grant a religious exemption despite the organization’s track record of facilitating, on average, five adoptions per year. A similar case involving a faith-based adoption agency went to the U.S. Supreme Court in 2021, with the court ruling that the city of Philadelphia could not refuse to work with Catholic Social Services because of the group’s policy of only certifying heterosexual married couples as foster parents.

These examples, and others like them, should weigh heavily on Republican senators who are thinking about voting for the Respect for Marriage Act. The consequences for religious liberty in this bill are serious. Senators considering the merits of this legislation would do well to examine these legitimate concerns and reject this radical bill.