Talking Points|Social Issues   4 Minute Read

Talking about Religious Liberty, Marriage, & Non-Discrimination Laws

Published October 10, 2013

Updated On November 19, 2014

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Our country is making incredibly quick progress toward the time when gay couples can marry nationwide. But some marriage opponents have tried to thwart that momentum by claiming that allowing gay couples to marry will infringe on the religious liberty of churches, religious organizations, or small business owners—when in fact those laws have been carefully crafted to explicitly protect it. Here are five things to know when pushing back against overly broad religious liberty proposals.

#1: Focus on values.

Arguments against overly broad religious liberty exemptions often devolve quickly into legalistic language or phrases like “separation of church and state.” Instead, it is more persuasive to focus on core American values like freedom, the Golden Rule, and commitment.

  • Religious freedom is a fundamental part of America, and we value our religious beliefs. But those beliefs don’t allow us to discriminate against others in a business. Freedom means freedom for everyone, and none of us should be turned away from a business just because of who we are.
  • We teach our children to follow the Golden Rule and treat others as we would want to be treated. If we say the Golden Rule doesn’t apply to businesses, what message are we sending to our kids?
  • Gay and lesbian couples pay taxes, vote, and serve in the military. They work hard and pay into the same system as everyone else, and they want to marry for the same reasons as anyone else—to celebrate their commitment and share their love with their family and friends. They should be able to celebrate their marriage in the way they want just like every other American.

#2: Reinforce control.

The lightning speed at which public opinion is moving on marriage can leave some people suffering from whiplash and searching for a way to feel grounded and in control, rather than feeling like changes are being imposed upon them. In order to reach those folks, it is important to acknowledge their journey and remind them that we aren’t asking anyone to change their personal beliefs on the issue. We should also be careful not to demonize those who refuse to serve gay couples, or convey sympathy only toward the gay couple who has been turned away, because many Americans have only recently changed their minds on this issue and can relate to and empathize with those who have not yet completed their own journey.

  • Marriage for gay couples is a difficult issue, and it is okay for people to feel conflicted about it. No one is asking these business owners to change their beliefs or go against their faith, but turning people away because of who they are is wrong.
  • Providing services for a wedding—like baking a cake or providing flowers—does not mean the baker or florist approves of the marriage, it just means that they are fulfilling a contract for services.

#3: Emphasize that existing laws are balanced.

Twenty-one states—including every one in which gay couples are allowed to marry—already have nondiscrimination laws that protect gay couples from being turned away because of who they are.

  • This is nothing new. Every marriage state has a longstanding nondiscrimination laws on the books prohibiting business owners from refusing to serve someone because they are gay, and new laws allowing gay couples to marry don’t change those protections in any way.
  • These laws balance the need to protect the religious liberty of those who have objections to homosexuality with the need to ensure that gay people aren’t being turned away from a business. Those existing religious liberty protections aren’t undermined by marriage laws—in fact, they are often explicitly restated or expanded by laws allowing gay couples to marry.

#4: Highlight taxpayer dollars.

Americans draw a firm line when tax dollars are in play—if an organization is receiving state or federal funds to provide a service, Americans believe that group should have to serve all comers—not pick and choose among qualified applicants.

  • If Catholic Charities takes tax dollars to provide a social service, they cannot then decide to turn away certain groups of people from that program, including legally married gay couples.
  • This principle is the same one that motivated the Charitable Choice rules established by President George W. Bush. When a religious organization chooses to provide a taxpayer-funded service, it cannot establish a religious test for who it will serve.

#5: Don’t hit people over the head with discrimination.

When faced with those who refuse to serve gay couples, Americans in the middle think that the word “discrimination” is appropriate and persuasive.

  • Treating gay people differently based on who they are is discrimination.

But people already know what discrimination means. There is no need to explicitly invoke analogies between discrimination against gay couples and the discrimination African Americans suffered in the Civil Rights era, or cite other historical examples. When it comes to discrimination, messages are more persuasive when they are short and sweet and leave a bit to the imagination.


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