What Will Happen To Churches That Don’t Believe In Gay Marriage?

W. James Antle III Managing Editor
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Will churches that do not recognize same-sex marriage eventually lose their tax-exempt status? The idea has been floated before.

There are many reasons to suspect that this won’t happen. Fifty years of anti-discrimination laws on the basis of sex haven’t had much impact on the Catholic Church’s all-male priesthood.

In various countries and states where gay marriage exists, churches have generally not been forced to recognize them. Churches in the United States refuse to celebrate weddings for people whose marriages would be legal under civil law all the time.

Plenty of heterosexuals who can legally marry cannot get married in the Catholic Church, or can only do so with special permission. The government has never treated this as discrimination.

But the two minutes of hate against Indiana revealed that a fairly narrow conception of religious freedom has gone mainstream, while some people seem to have a fairly narrow conception of freedom, period.

New York Times columnist Ross Douthat is likely correct when he says that if conservatives had offered legal same-sex marriage throughout the country in exchange for Christian wedding vendors being allowed to use the Religious Freedom Restoration Act process to possibly (not definitely) decline to participate, as late as Barack Obama’s first term, most liberals would have taken that deal.

As what’s politically possible has changed, so has what liberals have demanded on this issue. There’s nothing inherently wrong with that. No political movement is required to either accomplish all its long-term goals at once or accomplish none of them.

On this issue, however, there has been a teensy bit of duplicity involved. In a relatively short period of time, the president went from saying a.) No gay marriage, God is in the mix to b.) Gay marriage is something I’m in favor of personally, but the policy should be set at the state level and c.) The Supreme Court must discover a constitutional right to gay marriage in all 50 states.

When Republicans proposed a constitutional amendment on gay marriage, many Democratic senators, including Harry Reid and Hillary Clinton, said they opposed gay marriage too but we didn’t need the amendment because the federal Defense of Marriage Act was so great.

It took less than a decade for their position to morph from “the Defense of Marriage Act is great” to “the Defense of Marriage Act is unconstitutional and unjust.” Again, there’s nothing wrong with changing one’s mind. But this looks a bit more calculated.

Prior to 2010, nobody thought the country was a theocracy because Little Sisters of the Poor didn’t have to pay for IUD coverage.

For the moment, taking away the tax-exempt status of most churches and other houses of worship in America would probably trigger a political backlash too large for any sane politician to contemplate. But if political conditions change?

It’s easy for gay marriage and religious freedom to coexist if you believe gay marriage is simply a good and fair policy. But if you sincerely believe that traditional religious teachings on marriage and sex are totally indistinguishable from racism, it becomes untenable to treat those teachings differently than you would treat racism.

At that point, it’s even possible houses of worship will run afoul of public accommodations laws. After all, religion was often invoked in defense of racism, right? (Religion was often invoked against racism too and the church was actually ahead of the curve on abolishing slavery.)

Politically, yanking the tax-exempt status of an outlier like Bob Jones University (the school didn’t admit blacks until the 1970s and prohibited interracial dating until 2000) is one thing. The largest denominations in America do not recognize same-sex marriage. The churches that do perform such marriages are much smaller than the ones that don’t.

But while there is safety in numbers, the size of these denominations might also make challenging their practices more appealing. The Catholic Church and the United Methodist Church, for example, have both lay members and clergy who dissent from their teachings on marriage.

Smaller, more marginal faiths might be easier to push around. They also are likely to have fewer members who will want to revise their denominations’ position on marriage.

Bottom line? Expect no change in how the government deals with churches that don’t do gay marriage for the foreseeable future. But should there be a change, what the journalist Rod Dreher calls the law of merited impossibility will apply: “It will never happen, and when it does, you bigots will deserve it.”

W. James Antle III is managing editor of The Daily Caller and author of the book Devouring Freedom: Can Big Government Ever Be Stopped? Follow him on Twitter.