The fundamental principle of separation of church and state should lead Minnesota voters to reject the proposed constitutional amendment defining marriage as only the union of one man and one woman.
The amendment is, at its core, an attempt to impose one specific religious view on all citizens. That is not the proper role of government under our First Amendment guarantees of free exercise and non-establishment of religion.
The proposed amendment is based on conservative religious views about homosexuality and “traditional” marriage. Its supporters rely on select biblical passages that, by their interpretation, condemn homosexual relations and support the view that only male-female marriages are allowed.
An inherently religious stance
They contend that same-gender marriages would violate the “sanctity” of marriage, which is inherently a religious stance. The most conservative or orthodox branches of Christianity, Judaism and Islam oppose same-gender marriage.
However, many sects and branches of religions do not share this view. Many religious denominations support equal marriage rights for same-gender couples and may even allow clergy openly involved in same-gender relationships to lead their congregations. Examples are all or certain branches of the Baptist, Episcopal, Jewish, Lutheran, Unitarian Universalist and United Church of Christ faiths.
Some disagree with clergy
Even within the most conservative religious denominations, some congregations and followers of the faith do not agree with their clergy or leadership hierarchy. For example, Catholics for Marriage Equality MN opposes the amendment despite the unflinching position of the Catholic Church of Minnesota. Indeed, 100 former Catholic priests have joined forces to oppose the amendment.
Of course, atheists, secular humanists and members of other religions that are not based on Judeo-Christian theology would oppose any attempt to impose other people’s religious views on them. Members of many religious and civic groups also point to the need to make sure laws that affect everyone — regardless of their religion — have a secular rationale as a primary reason for being adopted. This is a key branch of the so-called “Lemon test” adopted by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1971.
The state should not choose among religious beliefs
In light of this, the “wall of separation between Church and State” described by President Thomas Jefferson, the leading proponent of the Bill of Rights, should lead voters to reject the proposed amendment. The state should not be put in a position of choosing between competing religious views, or of imposing the beliefs of the religious on the non-religious. Not only Jefferson and President John F. Kennedy but also President James Madison, known as the “Father of the Bill of Rights,” spoke of the benefits to both institutions of the “total separation of the Church from the State.”
Often, proponents of the amendment claim that permitting same-gender marriages would force churches to marry same-gender couples against their religious doctrine, thus infringing on the free exercise of their religion. Yet nothing in existing or proposed marriage-freedom laws does any such thing. The doctrine of separation of church and state would, in fact, prohibit the state from forcing churches to perform marriages that contradict their faith. In fact, churches are not required to perform any marriages. They can, therefore, decide which marriages they wish to perform.
Laws are currently blocking some clergy
Ironically, however, state laws and constitutional provisions banning same-gender marriages on the books today are blocking clergy and congregations that wish to legally marry same-gender couples from doing so. Under Minnesota law, ministers of any religious denomination are authorized to solemnize marriages, but are not allowed to do so for same-gender couples even if they wish. This is an open and continuing violation of the separation of church and state doctrine that should be remedied by legislation or else by our courts. The proposed constitutional amendment would only perpetuate this state interference with the free exercise of religion.
The First Amendment principles of free exercise and non-establishment of religion weigh heavily against the marriage amendment. Minnesota should not adopt a permanent ban on same-gender marriage by establishing one religious viewpoint into the Constitution.
Rather, Minnesota should repeal its existing legal restrictions and allow equal marriage rights to same-gender couples. In that way, all couples would be able to participate in marriage if it is consistent with their religious or non-religious views. Those who do not wish to participate in or officiate over same-gender marriages because of their religious values need not do so.
Jonathan L. Eisenberg is an attorney and vice president of the Minnesota Chapter of Americans United for Separation of Church and State.
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