Same-Sex Marriage Ruling Raises Questions Of Religious Rights, Tax Status

Jul 17, 2015
Originally published on July 19, 2015 10:00 am
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Now that the Supreme Court has legalized same-sex marriage, some religious institutions are worried they'll be forced to change their own view of marriage as a union between a man and a woman. Some see this as a test of the country's basic commitment to religious freedom. As NPR's Tom Gjelten reports, the question revolves around the meaning of liberty and also the relationship between church and state.

TOM GJELTEN, BYLINE: Some of the uproar over the Supreme Court's marriage ruling is misplaced. Ministers will not be forced to marry same-sex couples, and churches will not be forced to accommodate same-sex weddings. But what about schools? Union University in Tennessee prohibits sexual activities that fall outside a marriage covenant between a man and a woman. That applies to staff as well as students, and Samuel Oliver, Union's president says it dictates, for example, which employees qualify for marriage benefits.

SAMUEL OLIVER: We don't offer benefits to same-sex partners because having that same-sex partner would be a violation of our behavioral code.

GJELTEN: Hope College in Holland, Mich., early this month announced that it would begin extending spousal benefits to employees who are in a same-sex marriage. The president said it was because those marriages are now legally recognized. So could Union University get in trouble with the federal government because its policies still discriminate against same-sex couples? Shapri LoMaglio is vice president for government relations at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. As a lawyer, she tells her schools the First Amendment protects them as long as they directly tie their policies on same-sex relationships to their core religious beliefs.

SHAPRI LOMAGLIO: Not only this is our policy but this is why we have this policy, and this is the theological belief that we hold that this policy stems from.

GJELTEN: But some conservatives aren't so sure the Constitution will protect them. Here's Rod Dreher, who writes on religion issues for The American Conservative.

ROD DREHER: For me, the most likely scenario is the government and the courts will use the law to pressure religious institutions to give up their core commitments, that gay civil rights will trump religious liberty.

GJELTEN: Dreher feels the entire culture in America is moving against conservative Christian values. The culture war, he says, is one conservative Christians can't win right now. He thinks it's time for them to turn inward and focus on their own survival as a religious community.

DREHER: I think we Christians have got to fall back on strengthening our own institutions, our own families and our own institutions for the sake of resilience.

GJELTEN: In 1983, the Supreme Court denied tax-exempt status to Bob Jones University because it prohibited interracial dating. Though no institution today would defend such a policy, there is that precedent. The government can punish a school if its policies contradict what the government stands for. Rod Dreher would go so far as to recommend that Christian institutions - schools and churches alike - should consider giving up their government benefits in order to preserve their independence.

DREHER: We're going to have to disengage ourselves from the state as much as we can if we're going to be true to what we believe.

GJELTEN: This idea that religious institutions might actually be better off without their government benefits seems to be growing. Mark Oppenheimer writes the Belief column for The New York Times.

MARK OPPENHEIMER: Nonprofits in general, when they ask for tax exemptions, are, in a sense, inviting the government into their business. When you ask for a special status in the tax code, you are risking government intrusion.

GJELTEN: The action taken against Bob Jones University in 1983 did not lead to any infringement of religious freedom in general. Racial discrimination became seen as an abhorrent ideology. Mark Oppenheimer points out that the concept of what's sinful often changes over time.

OPPENHEIMER: Up until the 1970s, for example, it was highly frowned upon in evangelical circles to get a divorce. That belief completely vanished. It's just gone. The disapproval of divorce in evangelical circles is very, very tough to find. It just changed along with the culture.

GJELTEN: That could also happen with same-sex marriage, though many conservatives would no doubt fight it. But it is now clear that last month's Supreme Court decision has brought a reassessment of the culture wars on all sides. Tom Gjelten, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.