Amendment Gives Religious Organizations Exemption To Same-Sex Ruling
By DANIELA ALTIMARI
April 23, 2009
State legislators on Wednesday approved a measure that strives to strike a balance between the rights of gay couples and the rights of religious institutions that object to same-sex marriage.
A spokesman for Gov. M. Jodi Rell said she will sign the bill.
Votes in both the House of Representatives and the Senate came after hours of often impassioned discourse that touched on broad themes of religious liberty, freedom from discrimination and the state's long history of tolerance. The debate capped a multi-faceted campaign by gay marriage opponents that included newspaper and radio ads and messages from the pulpit.
The language exempting religious organizations, borrowed from the statute that legalized same-sex marriage in Vermont, wasn't essential to protecting religious liberties, said state Rep. Beth Bye, D- West Hartford.
"But there were people who felt it needed to be there," she said at 11:15 p.m., moments after the measure passed in the House by a vote of 100-44.
Bye, like most lawmakers, was flooded with calls and e-mails from constituents concerned about the bill. "There was so much misinformation out there," she said.
Strictly speaking, lawmakers were voting on a bill that codifies the landmark state Supreme Court ruling that opened the door to gay marriage in Connecticut.
But the Roman Catholic Church and the Family Institute of Connecticut believe there was more at stake. Both groups had pushed for legal protections for organizations affiliated with religions that do not accept same-sex marriage. They were also seeking a "conscientious objector" clause for business owners and professionals who believe homosexuality is sinful, immoral or wrong.
"It's not about gay marriage," said House Republican leader Lawrence Cafero of Norwalk. "That's the law. It's about religious freedom."
Lawmakers endorsed an amendment that allows religious organizations, associations and societies to effectively opt out of the requirements of the law. That means that a group such as the Knights of Columbus would not be required to rent out its function halls for same-sex wedding receptions. Nor would a Catholic priest be obligated to preside over such a union.
But both the House and Senate emphatically rejected expanding that circle of exemptions to include individuals and businesses such as florists and justices of the peace. To do so, they said, would be akin to enshrining discrimination in state statute.
"The simple fact is, you don't have the right to cherry-pick which constitutional protection you agree or disagree with," said state Sen. Andrew McDonald, a Democrat from Stamford.
But Sen. Sam S.F. Caligiuri said the amendment does not go far enough in protecting the right to religious liberty that is guaranteed in both the state and U.S. constitutions.
That lack of adequate protection "makes this bill fatally flawed," said Caligiuri, a Republican from Waterbury who is running for U.S. Senate. He was one of seven senators to vote against the bill; 28 voted in favor.
Some lawmakers said they feared the measure would lead religious groups that provide much-needed social services, such as adoptions, to choose to go out of business if they have to serve same-sex couples.
But McDonald said private organizations will still be able to set their own policies and procedures. Only those agencies and organizations that accept state funds would be required to adhere to the terms of the state Supreme Court ruling.
Peter Wolfgang, executive director of the Family Institute of Connecticut, agreed that the measure was flawed. But he said he was heartened by the amendment that carves out an exemption for religious organizations and affiliated groups.
"This has been a good day for religious liberty in Connecticut," Wolfgang said. "Not a perfect day, but a good day."
Anne Stanback, executive director of Love Makes a Family, a coalition of gay rights groups, said the amendment was "an acceptable accommodation."
Rep. Michael Lawlor, D- East Haven, showed flashes of emotion as he recounted the journey that gay rights activists have traveled to get to this point. "This is probably the last time these issues will ever be discussed in the state legislature."
Earlier in the evening, Senate Minority Leader John McKinney of Fairfield made essentially the same point. "The court's ruling ... is the law in the state of Connecticut. ... It's something we need to respect and understand and move on."
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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