The Magazine

Banned in Boston

The coming conflict between same-sex marriage and religious liberty.

May 15, 2006, Vol. 11, No. 33 • By MAGGIE GALLAGHER
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I PUT THE QUESTION to Anthony Picarello, president and general counsel of the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty. The Becket Fund is widely recognized as one of the best religious liberty law firms and the only one that defends the religious liberty of all faith groups, "from Anglicans to Zoroastrians," as its founder Kevin J. Hasson likes to say (referring to actual clients the Becket Fund has defended).

Just how serious are the coming conflicts over religious liberty stemming from gay marriage?

"The impact will be severe and pervasive," Picarello says flatly. "This is going to affect every aspect of church-state relations." Recent years, he predicts, will be looked back on as a time of relative peace between church and state, one where people had the luxury of litigating cases about things like the Ten Commandments in courthouses. In times of relative peace, says Picarello, people don't even notice that "the church is surrounded on all sides by the state; that church and state butt up against each other. The boundaries are usually peaceful, so it's easy sometimes to forget they are there. But because marriage affects just about every area of the law, gay marriage is going to create a point of conflict at every point around the perimeter."

For scholars, these will be interesting times: Want to know exactly where the borders of church and state are located? "Wait a few years," Picarello laughs. The flood of litigation surrounding each point of contact will map out the territory. For religious liberty lawyers, there are boom times ahead. As one Becket Fund donor told Picarello ruefully, "At least you know you're not in the buggy whip business."

Picarello is a Harvard-trained litigator experienced in religious liberty issues. But predicting the legal consequences of as big a change as gay marriage is a job for more than one mind. So last December, the Becket Fund brought together ten religious liberty scholars of right and left to look at the question of the impact of gay marriage on the freedom of religion. Picarello summarizes: "All the scholars we got together see a problem; they all see a conflict coming. They differ on how it should be resolved and who should win, but they all see a conflict coming."

These are not necessarily scholars who oppose gay marriage. Chai Feldblum, for example, is a Georgetown law professor who refers to herself as "part of an inner group of public-intellectual movement leaders committed to advancing LGBT [lesbian, gay, bisexual, transsexual] equality in this country." Marc Stern is the general counsel for the center-left American Jewish Congress. Robin Wilson of the University of Maryland law school is undecided on gay marriage. Jonathan Turley of George Washington law school has supported legalizing not only gay marriage but also polygamy.

Reading through these and the other scholars' papers, I noticed an odd feature. Generally speaking the scholars most opposed to gay marriage were somewhat less likely than others to foresee large conflicts ahead--perhaps because they tended to find it "inconceivable," as Doug Kmiec of Pepperdine law school put it, that "a successful analogy will be drawn in the public mind between irrational, and morally repugnant, racial discrimination and the rational, and at least morally debatable, differentiation of traditional and same-sex marriage." That's a key consideration. For if orientation is like race, then people who oppose gay marriage will be treated under law like bigots who opposed interracial marriage. Sure, we don't arrest people for being racists, but the law does intervene in powerful ways to punish and discourage racial discrimination, not only by government but also by private entities. Doug Laycock, a religious liberty expert at the University of Texas law school, similarly told me we are a "long way" from equating orientation with race in the law.

By contrast, the scholars who favor gay marriage found it relatively easy to foresee looming legal pressures on faith-based organizations opposed to gay marriage, perhaps because many of these scholars live in social and intellectual circles where the shift Kmiec regards as inconceivable has already happened. They have less trouble imagining that people and groups who oppose gay marriage will soon be treated by society and the law the way we treat racists because that's pretty close to the world in which they live now.

The (Gay) Public Intellectual

Of all the scholars who attended, perhaps the most surprising is Chai Feldblum. She is a Georgetown law professor who is highly sought after on civil rights issues, especially gay civil rights. She has drafted many federal bills to prohibit orientation discrimination and innumerable amicus briefs in constitutional cases seeking equality for gay people. I ask her why she decided to make time for a conference on the impact of same-sex marriage on religious liberty.