Sin of Omission: The Media, Clergy, and Same-Sex Marriage

Bride and Groom holding hands at the altar as the minister oversees the reading of the vows. The wedding is taking place in N
Bride and Groom holding hands at the altar as the minister oversees the reading of the vows. The wedding is taking place in New York city's High Line Park

Another day, another controversial religious freedom bill. This time it's Georgia state lawmakers who are making headlines for proposing new protections against penalizing those who oppose same-sex marriage on religious grounds. These measures are similar to those introduced in at least seven other states including last year's legislation in Indiana that garnered substantial national attention. The new measures in Georgia differ from previous attempts in their approach, focusing specifically on opposition to same-sex marriage and not broad religious protections. But one thing that has remained the same across all these proposals is the media's confounding coverage of clergy rights.

A frustrating pattern emerges when examining how major news sources cover this type of legislation. The most recent offense can be found in the New York Times within their article about Georgia's bill: "At first, the State House unanimously approved a measure ensuring that clergy members could not be compelled to solemnize a marriage that conflicted with their religious views. But a sweeping rewrite in the State Senate left lawmakers weighing the far more controversial protections." This statement, which is indeed true, is simply given this brief mention before moving on to other aspects of the proposal. The problem is, it's missing some important context--this part of the bill isn't "controversial" because it's already the law of the land.

Clergy are presently protected by the free exercise clause of the First Amendment to the United States Constitution. They are free to refuse services to anyone who does not meet their moral or denominational criteria. A state grants religious leaders the right to perform legally recognized marriages, but it does not compel them to do so. Think about it: would a Rabbi be forced to marry two Christians or be penalized because refusal would be religious discrimination? Of course not. Most of us can also think of instances where a particular religious body chose to exclude a betrothed couple because of an issue such as a pervious divorce, disagreement about baptismal rituals, or objections to interfaith marriage. While these issues would face discrimination laws if they were raised within a private business, places of worship understandably operate under different rules.

The right of clergy to turn away those who they don't wish to marry was firm before Obergefell v. Hodges legalized same-sex marriage in all fifty states, and nothing in the Supreme Court ruling changes that for today. No clergy should be forced to officiate a marriage that they don't want to officiate--but no one is arguing that they should. Journalists writing about part of a new bill or amendment that would "protect clergy" without explaining that they are already safeguarded only serves to promote misunderstanding.

There are plenty of religious freedom issues that have real-world implications and no easy answers. A church would never be forced to make their sanctuary available to everyone, but what if they have a separate recreational center that is publicly rented out for heterosexual weddings? Can the Internal Revenue Service revoke the tax-exempt status of a religiously affiliated college if they offer married opposite-sex students housing but refuse the same accommodations for married LGBT students? It is clear that the future will bring contested decisions about where religiously affiliated nonprofits should draw the line between discrimination and free religious exercise.

But whether or not clergy can choose who they marry is a settled issue--and the publications covering these events have the responsibility to make that clear.