Religious liberty and SSM, continued:

This post continues a discussion I have been having with five law professors (Tom Berg, Carl Esbeck, Rick Garnett, Doug Laycock, and Robin Wilson) who have proposed that state legislation authorizing same-sex marriage should include a special, broad exemption for religious objectors. The proposal, my questions about it, and the professors' responses can all be found at one link here. I'll assume interested readers (all six of us!) are familiar with the draft proposal and with the exchange so far.

The six of us appear to agree that, as Robin Wilson put it in her measured op-ed in the LA Times on Sunday, "It's possible to legalize gay marriage without infringing on religious liberty." That separates us from the National Organization for Marriage and some others who warn of irreconcilable and intolerable conflicts between gay marriage and religious liberty. (I should add that I don't know whether Berg, Esbeck, Garnett, and Wilson themselves oppose state recognition of gay marriage on other grounds. Laycock supports it.)

We do have some differences on the scope of the conflict and thus on the breadth of any needed accommodation. The bottom line is, I think there are genuine and substantial concerns about the reach of some state antidiscrimination laws. But I think the distinctive contribution of SSM to these conflicts has been small, is likely to remain small, and thus that the case for special religious exemptions in SSM bills is not very strong. While the substantive legal case is unproven, the political case is stronger. In that sense, I welcome this new focus in the SSM debate and I am grateful for the practical work being done by scholars like Berg et al. to alleviate the concerns of traditionalists while making space for the full protection of gay families.

I. SSM and religious liberty: the experience so far

Like much of the rest of the debate over the effects of gay marriage, the question whether SSM threatens religious liberty -- either by itself or in combination with various state antidiscrimination laws -- is no longer a wholly theoretical one. We have now had full gay marriage in Massachusetts for five years. We have had gay marriage or the legal equivalent of it in Vermont since 2000, in California since 2005, in Connecticut since 2005, in New Jersey since 2006, in New Hampshire since early 2008, and in Oregon since early 2008. (Other states have formally recognized same-sex relationships, while granting a much more limited set of rights: Washington (2007), Maine (2004), Hawaii (1997), Maryland (2008), and D.C. (1992).) I leave out Iowa (2009) and Colorado (2009), where recognition is still fresh.

Just counting the pre-2009 SSM and civil-union states, covering about one-fifth of the U.S. population, that's a combined 27 years' worth of experience fully recognizing gay relationships. Each of those seven states also has broad laws forbidding discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation in areas like employment, education, housing, public accommodations, and so forth. Each of those states also prohibits discrimination on the basis of "marital status" in housing and/or employment.

In these seven states, tens of thousands of gay couples have been married, civilly unionized, or domestically partnered over the past decade. They have had ceremonies, selected caterers, rented halls, ordered flowers and invitations, been fitted for dresses and tuxes, chosen professional photographers, hired clergy and non-clergy alike to officiate, gotten licenses from state bureaus, rented apartments together, adopted children, enrolled their kids in public and private schools, claimed health benefits for their spouses, sought employment to support their families, trudged through relationship counseling, and done every other ridiculously expensive and anxiety-laden thing married people do.

The opportunity has certainly been there for massive legal conflict. Yet the legal conflicts between gay couples and religious objectors -- all under pre-existing anti-discrimination laws -- have been very few. I can find no reported decisions, for example, where a small landlord refused to rent to an unmarried gay couple, much less a married one.

And the number of these conflicts in which the state's formal legal recognition of the gay couple determined the outcome is . . . zero. The number of cases in which the existence of a gay marriage or civil union defeated an otherwise meritorious religious-freedom claim is . . . zero. The number of cases in which the absence of a gay marriage (or civil union) relieved the religious objector of a non-discrimination obligation is . . . zero.