Bishops: Federal ‘Respect for Marriage Act’ Still Needs Religious-Freedom Fixes

Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York and Bishop Robert Barron of Winona-Rochester, Minnesota, sent a Nov. 23 letter to members of Congress.

U.S. Capitol, Senate side
U.S. Capitol, Senate side (photo: Public domain)

A federal bill to recognize same-sex unions as marriages lacks sufficient religious-freedom protections and will undermine the truth about marriage, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops said Wednesday.

“The Respect for Marriage Act’s rejection of timeless truths about marriage is evident on its face and in its purpose. It would also betray our country’s commitment to the fundamental right of religious liberty,” Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York and Bishop Robert Barron of Winona-Rochester, Minnesota, said in a Nov. 23 letter to members of Congress.

Cardinal Dolan heads the U.S. bishops’ Committee for Religious Liberty, while Bishop Barron heads the bishops’ Committee on Laity, Marriage, Family Life, and Youth.

“This bill is needless and harmful and must be voted down,” the bishops’ letter said. “At the same time, Congress, and our nation as a whole, must resolve to foster a culture where every individual, as a child of God, is treated with respect and compassion.”

The Respect for Marriage Act advanced last week in a key U.S. Senate vote of 62-37, with some Republican support. If the bill becomes law, it would federally recognize same-sex civil marriage and require states to recognize any marriage contracted in other states. It would also provide legal protections for interracial marriages.

The act would repeal the Defense of Marriage Act, a 1996 law signed by President Bill Clinton that defined marriage federally as the union of a man and a woman and permitted states not to recognize same-sex marriages contracted in other states. That law is not in effect under the 2013 and 2015 Supreme Court decisions United States v. Windsor and Obergefell v. Hodges, which required states to recognize same-sex unions as marriages.

Backers of a bipartisan religious-freedom amendment to the bill say their amendment ensures that nonprofit religious organizations would not be required to provide services, facilities or goods for the celebration of a same-sex marriage and protects religious liberty and conscience protections available under the Constitution and federal law, including the Religious Freedom Restoration Act. The amendment, backers say, would ensure that churches, universities and other nonprofit religious organizations would not lose tax-exempt status or other benefits for refusing to recognize same-sex marriages and would not be required to provide services for the celebration of any marriage.

However, the U.S. bishops questioned these claims.

“Unfortunately, a number of religious groups and senators are asserting that the amended text of (the Respect for Marriage Act) sufficiently protects religious freedom,” Cardinal Dolan and Bishop Barron continued. “From the perspective of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, whose bishops’ ministries comprise the largest non-governmental provider of social services in the United States, the provisions of the act that relate to religious liberty are insufficient. If passed, the amended act will put the ministries of the Catholic Church, people of faith, and other Americans who uphold a traditional meaning of marriage at greater risk of government discrimination.”

In an analysis accompanying the bishops’ letter, the U.S. bishops’ conference said the bill “will be used to argue that the government has a compelling interest in forcing religious organizations and individuals to treat same-sex civil marriages as valid.” This will allow lawsuits to revisit current precedent based on the federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act, the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, and other relevant law.

“(R)eligious objectors are likelier to be denied exemptions,” the analysis said. If the Respect for Marriage Act becomes law, it could affect employment decisions, employee spousal benefits, eligibility for grants or contracts, accreditation, and tax exemptions.

Faith-based foster care and adoption agencies, housing providers, and social-services agencies that serve immigrants could all be affected. Faith-based groups that help provide foster care to unaccompanied refugee children could be shut out of working with the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

“Religious organizations could be forced to hire and retain staff who publicly repudiate the organizations’ beliefs about marriage,” the analysis said.

Wedding vendors could be forced to participate in same-sex weddings. The IRS could revoke the tax exemptions of religious organizations with traditional beliefs about marriage. Government agencies could exclude religious schools from eligibility for public benefits and programs, including scholarships and school vouchers. Further, government agencies could exclude religious organizations from access to or use of public facilities.

According to the analysis, only the stronger religious-freedom amendment proposed by Utah Republican U.S. Sen. Mike Lee has “comprehensive, affirmative and enforceable protections,” but this amendment has not been added to the bill. Lee’s amendment would prohibit the federal government from discriminating against anyone who holds a religious belief or moral conviction that marriage is a union between one man and one woman or is a union between two individuals.

The U.S. bishops noted that the bill is being considered in the wake of a deadly mass shooting at Club Q in Colorado Springs, where five people were killed.

Opposition to the act, Cardina Dolan and Bishop Barron said, “by no means condones any hostility toward anyone who experiences same-sex attraction.”

“Catholic teaching on marriage is inseparable from Catholic teaching on the inherent dignity and worth of every human being,” they said. “To attack one is to attack the other. Congress must have the courage to defend both.”