Marriage Amendment Undercuts Religious Liberty, AU Tells Congress

A proposed marriage amendment to the U.S. Constitution threatens religious freedom and should be rejected, Americans United has told Congress.

In a Feb. 5 letter sent to every member of Congress, Americans United warned that a Religious Right-backed "Federal Marriage Amendment" would set a dangerous precedent by restricting individual rights. The measure, introduced by U.S. Rep. Marilyn Musgrave (R-Colo.), would define marriage as consisting "only of the union of a man and a woman."

Said the Rev. Barry W. Lynn, "We have written to Congress because the Federal Marriage Amendment is a grave mistake. The Constitution should protect the rights of all Americans; it should never be rewritten to take rights away. This proposal gives some religious traditions favored treatment.

"I do not want to see the legacy of Thomas Jefferson and James Madison revised by Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell," Lynn said.

The Federal Marriage Amendment (H.J. Res. 56), the AU letter asserts, would harm religious liberty by writing the view of marriage favored by certain religious groups into constitutional law for all to follow. The letter notes that some religious denominations approve of marriages for gay and lesbian couples and others do not.

"Far from protecting religion, the Federal Marriage Amendment would harm religion by expressing a preference for those religions that limit marriage to a man and woman and by relegating to second-class status the members of religions that have chosen to recognize same-sex unions," reads the AU letter. "Not only would the Amendment thereby contravene the longstanding Establish­ment Clause principle that government should not endorse some religious perspectives over others, but it would do so through a change to the Constitution itself, reflecting the government's greatest imprimatur and rendering this preference even more egregious."

Some amendment supporters contend that new constitutional language is necessary because the freedom of houses of worship to decide whom they will marry will be threatened if some states approve gay marriage. AU's letter refutes this argument, noting that the religious freedom provisions of the First Amendment bar "any court or legislature from requiring any religious institution or person to perform marriage ceremonies for anyone. Indeed, the Free Exercise Clause protects houses of worship in their freedom to limit marriages on whatever theological grounds they choose. Thus, a church may limit marriage to its own members, require marrying couples to promise to raise children in that faith, refuse to perform ceremonies for anyone who has been divorced, or impose other limitations based on that faith's tenets and beliefs."

Religious Right groups and their allies have been pushing for a marriage amendment in light of recent state court rulings requiring state governments to recognize gay marriages or civil unions. While religious groups have the right to advocate for the amendment, Americans United asserts in its letter to Congress that the drive is misguided because the amendment "would enshrine into the Constitution a particular religious viewpoint and would severely limit the religious liberty of millions of Americans."

President George W. Bush and some other elected officials have indicated that they may support a marriage amendment in order to protect the "sacred institution" of marriage. Religious Right allies of the president say the White House has promised them that Bush will formally endorse the amendment soon.

Ironically, Religious Right groups are now split on what type of amendment to put forth. Many groups have backed the Federal Marriage Amendment, but other groups want to go further and back an amendment that would also bar civil unions, domestic partnerships and virtually any form of state recognition of gay relationships. This proposal, dubbed the Institution of Marriage Amendment, has yet to be introduced in Congress but is expected soon.

The conservative Baptist Press reported last month that most Religious Right groups are supporting the Federal Marriage Amendment, among them the Family Research Council, Focus on the Family and the Southern Baptist Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission.

But one prominent group, Concerned Women for America (CWA), is backing the Institution of Marriage Amendment instead. CWA head Sandy Rios says the Federal Marriage Amendment does not go far enough and that her group is determined to see civil unions banned as well.

Rios called domestic partnerships and civil unions, which exist in California, Vermont and New Jersey, a form of "legislative vandalism...whereby politicians carve up the legal attributes of marriage and hand them out to special interest groups by another name...."

Despite the rift, Religious Right groups are eager to use the anti-gay marriage issue to win new support and raise money. The New York Times reported Feb. 8 that the leaders of several Religious Right groups have been meeting regularly to plot strategy and discuss ways to use the amendment to win new allies.

Calling themselves the "Arlington Group" after the Washington, D.C., suburb where they meet, the group leaders have pressured Bush top strategist Karl Rove to secure presidential backing for the amendment. They also hope to use the issue to reach out to non-traditional allies, such as African Americans and Hispanics.

The story noted that contributions to many Religious Right groups dropped once President Bill Clinton left office. Organizational leaders believe the marriage amendment gives them a powerful new rallying issue.

"Things have not gone well in the past couple of years," Paul Weyrich of the Free Congress Foundation told The Times. "The movement had not been gaining members, it has not been winning battles, with the exception of the pro-life issue, and those were marginal battles. This issue has come along, and it appears to be turning things around."

Religious Right groups were especially alarmed over recent developments in Massachusetts, where the state's highest court has ruled that gay couples have the right to marry, not just form civil unions. In response, legislators in Massachusetts began crafting a state constitutional amendment limiting marriage to heterosexual couples, but the effort remained in flux as Church & State went to press.