Saturday, June 27, 2015

Obergefell v Hodges: Religious Liberty Statements and Implications

The following are quotations from the recent Supreme Court decision regarding the issue of religious liberty.

The first quotation comes from the decision  written by Justice Kennedy:
Finally, it must be emphasized that religions, and those who adhere to religious doctrines, may continue to advocate with utmost, sincere conviction that, by divine precepts, same-sex marriage should not be condoned.  The First Amendment ensures that religious organizations and persons are given proper protection as they seek to teach the principles that are so fulfilling and so central to their lives and faiths, and to their own deep aspirations to continue the family structure they have long revered. (p. 27)
This sounds fair-minded but other of the Justices bring nuance and perspective which speaks of the dangers of this decision for religious liberty.  Chief-Justice Roberts comments:
 Today's decision, for example, creates serious questions about religious liberty.  Many good and decent people oppose same-sex marriage as a tenet of faith, and their freedom to exercise religion is--unlike the right imagined by the majority--actually spelled out in the Constitution.  Amdt. 1.
Respect for sincere religious conviction has led voters and legislators in every State that has adopted same-sex marriage democratically to include accommodations for religious practice.  The majority's decision imposing same-sex marriage cannot, of course, create any such accommodations.  The majority graciously suggests that religious believers may continue to "advocate" and "teach" their views of marriage.  Ante, at 27.  The First Amendment guarantees, however, the freedom to "exercise" religion.  Ominiously, that is not the word the majority uses.
Hard questions arise when people of faith exercise religion in ways that may be seen to conflict with the new right to same-sex marriage--when, for example, a religious college provides married student housing only to opposite-sex married couples, or a religious  adoption agency declines to place children with same-sex married couples.  Indeed, the Solicitor General candidly acknowledged that the tax exemptions of some religious institutions would be in question if they opposed same-sex marriage.  See Tr. of Oral Arg. on Question 1, at 36-38.  There is little doubt that these and similar questions will soon be before this Court.  Unfortunately, people of faith can take no comfort in the treatment they receive from the majority today. 
 Perhaps the most discouraging aspect of today's decision is the extent to which the majority feels compelled to sully those on the other side of the debate.  The majority offers a cursory assurance that it does not intend to disparage people who, as a matter of conscience, cannot accept same-sex marriage.  Ante, at 19.  That disclaimer is hard to square with the very next sentence, in which the majority explains that "the necessary consequence" of laws codifying the traditional definition of marriage is to "demea[n] or stigmatiz[e]" same-sex couples.  Ante, at 19.  The majority reiterates such characterizations over and over.  By the majority's account, Americans who did nothing more than follow the understanding of marriage that has existed for our entire history--in particular, tens of millions of people who voted to reaffirm their States' enduring definition of marriage--have acted to "lock ... out," "disparage," "disrespect and subordinate," and inflict "[d]ignitary wounds" upon their gay and lesbian neighbors.  Ante, at 17, 19, 22, 25.  These apparent assaults on the character of fairminded people will have an effect in society and in court.  See post, at 6-7 (Alito, J., dissenting).  Moreover, they are entirely gratuitous.  It is one thing for the majority to conclude that the Constitution protects a right to same-sex marriage; it is something else to portray everyone who does not share the majority's "better informed understanding" as bigoted.  Ante, at 19.  (pp. 27-29)
Justice Thomas in his dissent writes the following:
 Aside from undermining the political processes that protect our liberty, the majority’s decision threatens the religious liberty our Nation has long sought to protect.
The history of religious liberty in our country is familiar: Many of the earliest immigrants to America came seeking freedom to practice their religion without restraint. See McConnell, The Origins and Historical Understanding of Free Exercise of Religion, 103 Harv. L. Rev. 1409, 1422– 1425 (1990). When they arrived, they created their own havens for religious practice. Ibid. Many of these havens were initially homogenous communities with established religions. Ibid. By the 1780’s, however, “America was in the wake of a great religious revival” marked by a move toward free exercise of religion. Id., at 1437. Every State save Connecticut adopted protections for religious freedom in their State Constitutions by 1789, id., at 1455, and, of course, the First Amendment enshrined protection for the free exercise of religion in the U. S. Constitution. But that protection was far from the last word on religious liberty in this country, as the Federal Government and the States have reaffirmed their commitment to religious liberty by codifying protections for religious practice. See, e.g., Reli- gious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993, 107 Stat. 1488, 42 U. S. C. §2000bb et seq.; Conn. Gen. Stat. §52–571b (2015).
Numerous amici—even some not supporting the States—have cautioned the Court that its decision here will “have unavoidable and wide-ranging implications for religious liberty.” Brief for General Conference of Seventh-Day Adventists et al. as Amici Curiae 5. In our society, marriage is not simply a governmental institution; it is a religious institution as well. Id., at 7. Today’s decision might change the former, but it cannot change the latter. It appears all but inevitable that the two will come into conflict, particularly as individuals and churches are confronted with demands to participate in and endorse civil marriages between same-sex couples.
The majority appears unmoved by that inevitability. It makes only a weak gesture toward religious liberty in a single paragraph, ante, at 27. And even that gesture indicates a misunderstanding of religious liberty in our Nation’s tradition. Religious liberty is about more than just the protection for “religious organizations and persons . . . as they seek to teach the principles that are so fulfilling and so central to their lives and faiths.” Ibid. Religious liberty is about freedom of action in matters of religion generally, and the scope of that liberty is directly correlated to the civil restraints placed upon religious practice.
Although our Constitution provides some protection against such governmental restrictions on religious prac- tices, the People have long elected to afford broader protections than this Court’s constitutional precedents man- date. Had the majority allowed the definition of marriage to be left to the political process—as the Constitution requires—the People could have considered the religious liberty implications of deviating from the traditional definition as part of their deliberative process. Instead, the majority’s decision short-circuits that process, with potentially ruinous consequences for religious liberty. (pp. 14-16)
Justice Alito argues the following in his dissent:
Today’s decision usurps the constitutional right of the people to decide whether to keep or alter the traditional understanding of marriage. The decision will also have other important consequences. 
It will be used to vilify Americans who are unwilling to assent to the new orthodoxy. In the course of its opinion, the majority compares traditional marriage laws to laws that denied equal treatment for African-Americans and women. E.g., ante, at 11–13. The implications of this analogy will be exploited by those who are determined to stamp out every vestige of dissent.

Perhaps recognizing how its reasoning may be used, the majority attempts, toward the end of its opinion, to reas- sure those who oppose same-sex marriage that their rights of conscience will be protected. Ante, at 26–27. We will soon see whether this proves to be true. I assume that those who cling to old beliefs will be able to whisper their thoughts in the recesses of their homes, but if they repeat those views in public, they will risk being labeled as bigots and treated as such by governments, employers, and schools. 
The system of federalism established by our Constitution provides a way for people with different beliefs to live together in a single nation. If the issue of same-sex mar- riage had been left to the people of the States, it is likely that some States would recognize same-sex marriage and others would not. It is also possible that some States would tie recognition to protection for conscience rights. The majority today makes that impossible. By imposing its own views on the entire country, the majority facilitates the marginalization of the many Americans who have traditional ideas. Recalling the harsh treatment of gays and lesbians in the past, some may think that turn- about is fair play. But if that sentiment prevails, the Nation will experience bitter and lasting wounds.