Liberty and Conscience in New York: the Same-sex Marriage Law

Last week, the State of New York passed legislation allowing gay couples to marry, and Gov. Andrew Cuomo signed it into law. It was a close, and closely watched, vote. The Republicans in the state senate were really under the gun, because the social-conservative wing of the party pushed hard against the bill. It came down to just a few Republican senators who provided the deciding votes.

The New York Times has done some good reporting on the personal and political struggles that went into the vote, and an interesting piece in yesterday’s Times, co-written by Danny Hakim, one of the paper’s religion writers, focused on the four Republican senators who voted for the bill, resulting in its passage.

Two of the four, Mark Grisanti and James Alesi, are Catholic, and Grisanti had pronounced himself “inalterably opposed” to gay marriage in 2008. Yet according to the Times, he said on the floor of the Senate that although as a Catholic he had reservations, as a lawyer, he could not deny other citizens “the same rights that I have with my wife.”

Alesi had previously voted against gay marriage as well but recently told National Public Radio that was a political, not a moral or religious vote.

No mention was made of McDonald’s religious convictions, but the article said McDonald has two autistic grandchildren that apparently may have figured in his decision. I assume a concern for vulnerable groups is the analogy.

Saland is Jewish, and he was key in crafting a religious-liberty exemption that protects churches and clergy from lawsuits and state action should they refuse to participate in gay marriages. The exemption was added as an amendment to the original bill, and it was apparently an important factor in the bill’s passage.

That religious-liberty exemption was important for more than political reasons. It has long been a fear of religious conservatives that governments wanting to enforce nondiscrimination statutes might try to coerce houses of worship and religious leaders to comply, even if it goes against their traditions and teachings. A couple of years ago, some evangelical, Catholic and Orthodox leaders issued a document called the Manhattan Declaration that bristled with defiance, pledging to engage in civil disobedience if governments tried any coercive measures. Same-sex marriage was one of the issues mentioned in the document.

Now, some might see the religious-liberty exemption as sanctioning discrimination. If a gay couple wanted to get married in St. Patrick’s Cathedral, they could say it is mere bias on the part of the Catholic Church that prevents them from doing so.

But religious organizations are governed by a different set of principles than civil law. They operate under traditions and practices that are not always understood by those from the outside. What appears to be bias to an outsider may be part of a coherent world-view that imparts meaning to existence and therefore is a source of comfort. Sometimes changes can be introduced into those traditions but it is not easily done. What looks like recalcitrance may be defense of a habit of being that far transcends what a state legislature may enact.

So the New York legislature did the right thing by including the religious-liberty exemption. Even the New York Civil Liberties Union’s Donna Lieberman said before the bill was passed that it “respects the right of clergy, churches and religious organizations to decide for themselves which marriages they will or will not solemnize or celebrate in keeping with our country’s principles of religious freedom.”

As for the four New York state senators, apparently only Grisanti may have difficulty getting re-elected because of their votes. But experience suggests that politicians usually are not elected or re-elected based on votes on moral grounds. That may be disappointing to social conservatives, but voters usually respect representatives who are transparent about their reasons for their votes on issues like this.

Grisanti was apparently resolved to face the consequences. According to the Times, he said, “Whatever happens in the future, that’s up to other people to decide.”

1 Comment

Filed under Same-sex marriage

One response to “Liberty and Conscience in New York: the Same-sex Marriage Law

  1. Carol

    I’m an agnostic liberal Democrat in support of gay marriage but I am surprised that there had to be a religious liberty exemption in the first place. My childhood church won’t marry (heterosexual) couples who’ve had pre-marital sex or live together. They won’t marry couples that don’t declare themselves as born-again Christ-believers. Seems to me that they’ve already established that they can marry anyone they choose and it disturbs me a little that this isn’t already protected by our freedom to practice laws.

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