California bill would shield churches from performing gay marriage ceremonies

The Sacramento BeeJune 25, 2012 

Supporters of Proposition 8, the 2008 initiative that banned same-sex marriage, said they were concerned that churches would be forced to perform the ceremonies or face losing their nonprofit status.

So far, courts reviewing the measure – which since was overturned in February – have not latched on to that argument. Now, one of the Legislature's most ardent same-sex marriage backers is trying to make it a moot point.

A bill making its way through the Legislature would protect churches' nonprofit status if clergy members refuse to perform gay marriages. Senate Bill 1140 by Sen. Mark Leno, D-San Francisco, also states that marriage is a civil contract, not a religious one.

"Whether or not one believes that all Californians should have equal marriage rights or should be treated equally under the law, I think we can all agree that protecting religious freedom is important," Leno said.

Supporters of his bill said it simply clarifies rights already protected by the U.S. Constitution's First Amendment.

The Rev. Alan Jones of Sacramento's St. Mark's United Methodist Church, said the measure could "make it easier for people as a matter of conscience to be able to support gay or lesbian unions."

"Some clergy feel that they don't want to be pressured to do gay marriages, but they have no objections to gay marriage. They just don't want to be the ones officiating," Jones said.

Not all churches are on board.

The Rev. Rick Schlosser, executive director of the California Council of Churches, said some churches in his organization oppose the bill because of its implications.

"Their objective is they oppose marriage equality and are afraid this will take away one of their major arguments," Schlosser said.

Religious groups have taken offense to the part of SB 1140 that says marriage is a civil contract, not a religious one.

"It doesn't do what it is reported to do, which is to protect religion, and it creates confusion by introducing a new definition of marriage," said Bill May, president of Catholics for the Common Good.

He argued that the bill's definition of marriage conflicts with the state constitution by removing the part of the definition that states marriage is between a man and a woman.

Leno disagrees with May's assessment.

"It's definitely not changing the definition of marriage," Leno said. "They are in their own fantasy world."

May added that Catholics for the Common Good already accepts that the state cannot control church doctrine. He asked Leno to include different protections.

"The real threat to churches is same-sex couples renting facilities when a church is trying to teach its congregation that marriage is between a man and a woman," May said.

Schlosser said churches do not have to rent facilities to same-sex couples, but that if they accept federal funds they are subject to nondiscrimination laws.

Leno acknowledged that his bill only implies that religious institutions do not have to rent to same-sex couples, and that the Legislature cannot control the loss of federal funds.

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