SACRAMENTO, Calif. (BP)–A new bill in the California legislature that purports to protect pastors from being forced to perform “gay marriages” actually contains language that could help open the door to legalizing such relationships down the road, conservatives who are watching the bill’s progress say.
Dubbed the Civil Marriage Religious Freedom Act, the bill (S.B. 906) is sponsored by Democratic state Sen. Mark Leno — a leading advocate for “gay marriage” — and it would, he says, ensure that “no member of clergy or church will be penalized for refusing to solemnize marriages that violate their religious tenets.” If the bill did only that, there likely would be no controversy, but it also changes California law to call all marriages recognized by the state “civil marriages.”
Such terminology may seem insignificant, but the supporters of “gay marriage” nationally have adopted that language to distinguish between what they call “civil marriage” and “religious marriage,” apparently in an effort to gain support for their cause. For instance, a “gay marriage” bill in New Hampshire last year gained traction only after language was added including the “civil” and “religious” terms, specifying that religious institutions would not be forced to perform or recognize civil marriages. It was signed into law. Opponents of the bill in that state said the new language was a smokescreen that simply restated what already was the case. It also, they argued, did not go far enough in protecting religious freedom.
Although California passed a constitutional amendment known as Prop 8 prohibiting “gay marriage,” it could be overturned through a federal court ruling or by the passage of another constitutional amendment.
The bill has the support of the homosexual group Equality California and the California Council of Churches IMPACT, a liberal-leaning religious group. The San Francisco Chronicle reported that the California Southern Baptist Convention (CSBC) also supports the bill, but a convention official told Baptist Press that the CSBC does not.
The California Family Policy Council, a social conservative organization that sometimes works with the CSBC, has not taken a position on the bill but is studying it and does have concerns, legislative coordinator Everett Rice told Baptist Press.
“The concern is over the specific changing of the California statute to create a new class of civil marriage,” Rice said. “We are concerned that that’s going to become another avenue of actually changing the definition of marriage itself. That’s been pretty much the focus of Sen. Leno’s and those who support homosexual marriage. Our concern is that the bill incrementally begins the process of doing that. What we’ve seen in the past is that measures like these incrementally try to change whole institutions.”
Rice pointed to the state’s same-sex domestic partnership law, which when passed initially in 1999 provided homosexual couples only some of the legal benefits of marriage. It later was expanded to provide all the legal benefits. Then, when the California Supreme Court legalized “gay marriage” in 2008 — a ruling later reversed by Prop 8 — the justices pointed to the domestic partnerships law and said it was unconstitutional to have a separate but equal system.
Said Leno, who is openly homosexual, “Some opponents of marriage for same-sex couples have argued that churches and members of clergy would be required to solemnize marriages that conflict with their religious beliefs. While we know religious freedom is protected under our Constitution, this legislation eliminates any confusion or doubt under state law….”
Although such concerns may have been voiced by pastors in private, ProtectMarriage.com — the organization that promoted Prop 8 — stayed away from that argument altogether in its 2008 campaign. Instead, ProtectMarriage.com concentrated on other aspects of how “gay marriage” could impact the culture, such as possibly changing what is taught in public schools.
Mike Johnson, an attorney with the Alliance Defense Fund — which opposes “gay marriage” — said Leno’s bill avoids the real issues that have been raised by concerned Christians.
“This deceptively-named bill is another attempt to confine the liberty argument to a very narrow area. ADF has religious liberty concerns that are far wider,” Johnson told Baptist Press. “Leno’s bill is a Trojan horse that does nothing to protect religious institutions or other agencies of the church from being forced to violate their religious beliefs. In fact, it further restricts church liberty and independence by giving the government greater power to define the church and its mission.”
For instance, ADF points to a case in New Mexico which Leno’s bill would not impact if something similar took place in California. In December a New Mexico judge ruled that a husband- and wife-owned photography company violated state anti-discrimination laws when they refused to take pictures of a lesbian commitment ceremony. They said doing so would have violated their religious beliefs. If the ruling is not overturned, the husband and wife will owe the lesbian couple more than $6,600 in attorneys’ fees.
The confusion over whether the California Southern Baptist Convention supports the bill began when The San Francisco Chronicle interviewed CSBC communications group leader Terry Barone and quoted him as saying the bill “would seem to add protections for a clergy member.” The Chronicle said the CSBC was one of “several religious organizations” that “support the measure.” Barone told Baptist Press the CSBC does not support the bill.
“I was asked by the Chronicle reporter what I thought of the bill and simply replied on the basis of what we as Baptists believe,” Barone told BP in an e-mail statement. “No one can speak for a body (church, association, convention, etc.) unless that body takes some formal action, which the California Southern Baptist Convention did not. Without having heard about or read the legislation, I commented that if the legislation protected the First Amendment rights of clergy not to perform same-sex marriages based on a number of issues — moral conscience, church polity, church doctrine, theology, etc., that it might be considered good legislation. However, I also pointed out that I thought the bill moot since same-sex marriages were not recognized by the state of California based on the passage of Proposition 8.”
Michael Foust is an assistant editor of Baptist Press.