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baltimoresun.com

Gay marriage bill doesn't do enough to protect religious freedom

9:00 AM EST, February 21, 2012

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Friday's decision to approve legislation allowing same-sex marriage should raise the concerns of religious freedom advocates ("Md. House passes same-sex marriage bill," Feb. 18). While it would be improper for religious organizations to seek to deny basic personal rights to homosexuals, the use of civil unions could enable homosexual couples to achieve this legal parity without stepping on the slippery first amendment slope that the current legislation does. The Obama administration's recent attempt to force religious organizations other than churches to comply with mandates that violate their religious principles illustrates the danger the current same sex marriage legislation poses.

The authors of Maryland's gay marriage bill should be commended for their attempts to protect religious institutions, charities and societies from recognizing the legitimacy of same sex marriages, but the bill does not go far enough. Specifically, religious institutions which receive state or federal money must comply with the bill. While the legislation specifically mentions First Amendment rights to free exercise of religion, it cannot in the same breath then dictate that some organizations will be ineligible for state or local funding because of how they choose to implement these same First Amendment rights. We must also look at the impact of forcing religious charities to decide whether to stay true to their doctrine or forgo providing services. In addition to selective application of First Amendment free exercise rights, the legislation will harm the greater good by forcing some charitable institutions to close their doors.

The current debate over same-sex marriage has been framed as a "civil rights" issue, but this is incorrect. Civil rights are defined as the extension of 13th and 14th amendment rights to minorities, where minority status is based on race, religion or ethnic background. Lifestyle choices do not fall under this definition. This bill protects religious institutions from being forced to "solemnify" same sex marriages, but by addressing the personal rights issues of homosexuals through the redefinition of marriage as opposed to the use of civil unions, the state has now put itself in the position of "solemnifying" a life style choice. By electing to do this, the bill over steps the government's responsibility to protect an individual's basic constitutional rights and makes the government the promoter of morality, which is a clear violation of First Amendment separation of church and state.

The bill makes a noble attempt to balance legislation protecting the personal rights of individuals who choose a homosexual lifestyle, with the rights of religious institutions to follow their established doctrine. Unfortunately the bill fails to meet its goals for protecting religious freedom. By tying federal and state funding to compliance with the bill's definition of marriage, the bill violates religious institution's First Amendment free exercise rights. It also violates the First Amendment separation of church and state by addressing personal rights issues through the state defined "solemnification" of a life style choice. This legislation needs to be re-crafted to protect religious rights.

Tom Jones, Annapolis