Separate chuch and state: Marriage is religious; let the government regulate civil unions -- for all

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After a barrage of more than 12,000 phone calls from gay-rights activists, Sen. Bob Casey has decided he now favors same-sex marriage. Some headlines, however, announced that he favors "marriage equality."

There's a difference between the two, and pointing it out is far more than just splitting hairs: One form of marriage equality -- civil unions for all -- preserves the constitutional right to free exercise of religion and the government's neutrality toward all religions; the other -- by insisting we call a civil contract a "marriage" -- does not.

One protects organized religions from government discrimination based on doctrine; the other does not.

One honors the "wall of separation," the other does not.

Mr. Casey, a devout Catholic who spends a lot of time in Washington, D.C., should know about the threat to religious freedom, because it's already happening in D.C. and other places where same-sex "marriage" has become law.

In 2009, when a same-sex marriage bill was under consideration, Cardinal Donald Wuerl, then an archbishop, warned that the diocese would not be able to continue providing social service programs the D.C. government subcontracted to it without language granting a clear exemption for religious institutions.

Even the American Civil Liberties Union urged the D.C. council to include an exemption, but as one council member explained, "Marriage is not just about two individuals who want to marry. ... [E]very third party [must] recognize that couple being married. Exemptions are a very troublesome slope because it [sic] undoes what we are trying to do here."

Exactly, religious traditionalists would say: What activists "are trying to do here" is to force others -- "every third party" -- to acquiesce to their worldview. They are asking government to establish their collective conscience at the expense of any other.

Asked to clarify Mr. Casey's position on marriage equality, a spokeswoman said he "has emphasized that he is supporting same-sex marriage as a secular institution."

But it's not. Marriage is an inherently religious rite that precedes government by millennia and still outweighs it as an organizing social force. Establishing one definition of "marriage" over another is an establishment of religion. (And yes, the Defense of Marriage Act committed the same error earlier in this conflict.)

In D.C., not only have foster children, the hungry, the homeless and now-uninsured church employees lost a great deal; so have all citizens, regardless of creed, whose tax dollars were stretched much further by religious nonprofits. (Catholic Charities subsidized its government contracts with $10 million annually in charitable funding.)

Mr. Casey's spokesperson said, "His Catholic faith does not specifically dictate how he votes on matters of public policy as a representative of 12.8 million Pennsylvanians of many faiths."

But it's exactly because there are many faiths at stake that the senator -- and all our officials -- should seek a solution that is religiously neutral. Religious exemptions for conservative denominations that cannot acknowledge same-sex unions as "marriage" still violate the constitutional prohibition against establishment of a particular religion.

Our celebrated, and shared, wall of separation was the creation of deeply religious men, not secularists. Martin Luther was the first to take the words of Jesus -- "Render unto Caesar what is Caesar's and unto God what is God's" -- and apply them to civil government, calling for "liberty of conscience."

Roger Williams, a Puritan-turned-Baptist pastor, founded Rhode Island so that all citizens -- whether "paganish, Jewish, Turkish, or antichristian" -- could enjoy Luther's liberty of conscience, thanks to a "wall of separation" between church and state.

Thomas Jefferson borrowed this phrase for his famous 1802 letter to the "Danbury Baptists." These ministers wrote to protest Connecticut's official support for Congregational churches. While the state allowed other denominations the freedom to dissent, the dissenters' rights were not inalienable -- but merely "favors granted," "inconsistent with the rights of free men."

An exemption for religious dissent creates second-class status at least as unconstitutional as the lack of contractual recognition for same-sex unions.

Mr. Casey, his spokesperson said, "firmly believes that ... [no] denomination should be required to confer religious or sacramental approval contrary to the tenets of its faith."

But even if that doesn't happen, it's very easy to imagine -- based on D.C.'s rabid example -- that the government could punish churches, synagogues and mosques that refuse to adopt the politically correct view of marriage. At the very least, we can expect their tax exemptions to be removed.

Regulating civil unions for all is the only way for government to stay neutral. In everyday conversation we'll still call them marriages, of course, but we must insist that government respect the wall of separation.

It's not too late for Mr. Casey to lead on shared principle, rather than merely following fractured public opinion.


Ruth Ann Dailey:


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