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Groups Want Faith Exemption On Same-Sex Marriage Issue


April 21, 2009

Six months after the state Supreme Court legalized same-sex marriage in Connecticut, opponents are opening a new front in the contentious battle.

Through a high-profile campaign that includes robocalls, TV spots, newspaper ads and messages from the pulpit, the Roman Catholic Church and other groups, both local and national, are making a last-ditch effort to carve out legal protections for business owners and professionals who oppose same-sex marriage on religious grounds.

"Freedom of religion [is a] fundamental right that [has] been inscribed in our federal constitution forever," said attorney John Droney, who is providing legal advice to the Knights of Columbus. "It doesn't suddenly get put on the shelf because of this new, emerging right."

The push for a religious exemption in Connecticut is unfolding amid a national debate over gay marriage and the rules that should apply in the four states where it is legal: Connecticut, Massachusetts, Vermont and Iowa.

The Knights of Columbus, the Catholic Church and the Family Institute of Connecticut are asking the state legislature to create what they are calling a religious liberties exception when it codifies the ruling that legalized gay marriage here. The effort was turned back in the legislature's judiciary committee, but proponents are hoping it will be brought forward on the Senate floor. A vote could come later this week.

What's at stake, these groups say, are the rights of citizens whose religious beliefs teach them that homosexuality is sinful, immoral or wrong. They believe that being forced to play a part in such unions, whether as a wedding photographer documenting the nuptials, a justice of the peace overseeing the ceremony or a marriage therapist providing counseling afterward, violates their right to religious liberty.

Gay rights activists say they wouldn't expect a Catholic priest to solemnize a gay union. But they say businesses and individuals that offer goods and services to the public must abide by anti-discrimination laws and face legal consequences if they do not.

"The United States constitution absolutely protects religious liberties and no one can force any religious organization to recognize any marriage they don't want to recognize," said Chris Edelson, state legislative director for the Human Rights Campaign, a national gay rights group.

But, he added, "if you run a business that's open to the public you cannot discriminate."

While it may be unlikely that same-sex couples would seek out a photographer, justice of the peace or counselor who does not support them, those advocating for the faith-based exemption fear business owners and professionals could be the target of lawsuits if they refuse to refuse to participate.

"We disagree with that court ruling and we'll look for opportunities to overturn it," said Peter Wolfgang of the Family Institute. "However, the immediate issue before us ... is not same-sex marriage. It is about religious liberty, it is about conscience and it is about protecting the rights of the rest of us."

Over the past few days, Catholics and others who seek such protections are flooding lawmakers with calls, just as they did last month, when the chairmen of the judiciary committee raised and quickly pulled a bill that would have changed the governance structure of the Catholic Church.

"We're facing another attack on our religious liberty," said a letter written by Norwich Bishop Michael Cote and slipped into church bulletins throughout the diocese on Sunday. "It's very serious and has to be stopped now."

Meanwhile, the National Organization for Marriage has launched a $1.5 million television ad campaign "highlighting the threat that same-sex marriage poses to the core civil rights of all Americans who believe in marriage as the union of a husband and wife," the group said. In the ad, which is running in Connecticut and four other states, an actor portrays a member of a New Jersey church group that lost its tax-exempt status because it did not permit a same-sex civil union to take place in its beach pavilion.The group is also conducting a phone campaign.

"There appears to be a determined effort to ignore and disrespect fundamental religious freedoms ... and that's unacceptable," said Patrick Korten, a Knights of Columbus spokesman.

He cited a poll conducted on behalf of his organization by Marist College that showed 70 percent of Connecticut voters disapprove of imposing fines and penalties on public officials who refuse to perform same-sex marriage based on religious objections.

"If you run a business that's open to the public you cannot discriminate."

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
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