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State Religious Freedom Laws Surface In Opposition To Same-Sex Marriage


A Supreme Court ruling last summer gave gay and lesbian couples a legal right to marry, and very quickly this question came up. What are the rights of those who oppose same-sex unions on religious grounds? In the last year, dozens of religious freedom bills have been introduced in state legislatures, bills written to protect people who say their faith bars them from supporting a same-sex wedding. NPR's Tom Gjelten brings us up to date.

TOM GJELTEN, BYLINE: The Supreme Court's legalization same-sex marriage was controversial, but it was apparently in keeping with the thinking of most Americans. The Public Religion Research Institute headed by Robert Jones found just 40 percent of Americans supporting same-sex marriage in 2008. That number's now up to 53 percent.

ROBERT JONES: So a 13-point jump just over the last eight years, and that's pretty remarkable. There's not very many public opinion issues where we can see that kind of change in that short amount of time.

GJELTEN: Over these years, more and more LGBT people have come out publicly.

JONES: Today we have more than two-thirds of the country saying they know someone who is gay or lesbian and about a little more than 1 in 10 saying they know someone who's transgender.

GJELTEN: That's how society is changing. People who say the idea of a same-sex union goes against their religious beliefs have given up on making same-sex marriage illegal. Instead they're advocating a right not to go along with it - a government clerk who does not want to issue a marriage license or the baker who doesn't want to make a cake for a gay wedding. Jeremy Tedesco, senior counsel at the Alliance Defending Freedom, says supporting that right is important because someone opposing same-sex marriage in that way could now face a discrimination suit.

JEREMY TEDESCO: It seriously threatens the ability of people of good faith that are just trying to live their lives, run their businesses in a way that's faithful to their god and to their religion.

GJELTEN: Tedesco's organization has helped state legislators around the country draft bills that would provide legal protection to people and organizations that decline to provide a service to a same-sex couple.

TEDESCO: There's a movement afoot, unfortunately, to coerce people to support same-sex marriage or to remain silent about it if they disagree.

GJELTEN: At the Human Rights Campaign, which advocates for LGBT rights, these religious freedom bills are simply attempts to authorize discrimination against LGBT people. Sarah Warbelow is the legal director.

SARAH WARBELOW: Those individuals and those businesses should be treating everyone who comes through their doors the same.

GJELTEN: So the question - uphold freedom to act in accord with one's faith or freedom from discrimination - Robin Fretwell Wilson, a professor of law at the University of Illinois, sees a possible compromise.

ROBIN FRETWELL WILSON: It's just a matter of careful line drawing about, you know - this person needs to be able to do this without getting in the way of that person legally getting married.

GJELTEN: Wilson has helped some legislators draft laws that would guarantee a same-sex couple the right to get a marriage license, for example, while also allowing an individual clerk the right not to sign the license as long as someone else can sign it.

WILSON: They're singing, you know, the best way to protect a particular a minority group, religious people, is actually protect another particular minority group, LGBT people.

GJELTEN: But the Human Rights Campaign's Sarah Warbelow sees that compromise still hurting LGBT people.

WARBELOW: Someone comes in, goes up to the counter, applies for their marriage license and risks being humiliated while clerk goes, finds someone else to do the paperwork.

GJELTEN: Moreover, that compromise wouldn't necessarily cover a private business owner who won't cooperate with a same-sex marriage. It's clear this is an area where there's likely to be a lot of legislating and a lot of litigating in the coming months or years, but for how long, if public opinion continues to move toward approval of same-sex relationships, the controversy may at some point just go away. Tom Gjelten, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.