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Honoring our fundamental liberties: The Civil Marriage Religious Freedom Act

Freedom of religion is a fundamental American value. Yet as a number of states have debated whether to recognize marriages for same-sex couples, some churches and religious leaders that oppose marriage equality have raised concerns that they would be required to solemnize these marriages. We heard this argument loudly and clearly when the California Legislature considered a bill I authored to recognize the marriages of same-sex couples and when Proposition 8 went to voters in 2008.

Marriage equality proponents have never believed that churches would be forced to solemnize marriages that are against their beliefs because of the constitutional protections for freedom of religion. Just as many churches are willing and eager to welcome lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) people of faith and same-sex couples, members of clergy may also refuse to marry same-sex couples based on their religious tenets.

Clearly, we need to clarify under California law that all members of clergy have this fundamental freedom. That is why I introduced, and Equality California is sponsoring, a bill to address this point of confusion.

The Civil Marriage Religious Freedom Act will clarify under state law that no priest, pastor or rabbi has to preside over any civil marriage that he or she cannot solemnize due to his or her religious beliefs. This law would apply to marriages between same-sex couples and interfaith marriages. The Civil Marriage Religious Freedom Act eliminates the concerns that Prop 8 supporters and others have often expressed in their arguments against the freedom to marry.

In addition to clarifying religious freedom, Senate Bill 906 goes a step further. It provides in state law that no religious institution would be at risk of losing its tax exempt status for refusing to solemnize a marriage based on religious beliefs. The bill also makes a clear distinction between civil marriage and religious marriage. Our state laws have always stated that marriage is a civil contract based on a license issued by a government entity. Yet there is confusion about the differences between civil marriage, which is recognized by the state, and religious marriage, which is created by each individual religious institution. If a couple wants to have a religious marriage, it is the couple’s choice to do so. However, the government should not, and cannot, be in the business of sanctioning religious marriage.

The Civil Marriage Religious Freedom Act strengthens religious freedom in California. Churches that fear their beliefs are threatened by marriage equality will have clear and solid protections under state law and churches that welcome LGBT people will continue to fully recognize same-sex couples and families within their faith. This bill simply affirms that California is a diverse state and that we can all co-exist and make space for each others’ beliefs without compromising the views of any religious group or individual.

This week is Freedom to Marry Week, when we honor those same-sex couples who have been fortunate enough to wed and advocate for those who are still waiting for the freedom to marry. In honor of this important celebration, please contact your legislators and ask them to cosponsor SB 906, and to vote for the bill when they have an opportunity.

Senator Mark Leno represents the Third Senate District, which includes Marin, and portions of San Francisco and Sonoma Counties. www.senate.ca.gov/leno