Debate Primer: Same-Sex Marriage and Religious Freedom

Rob Tisinai

October 5th, 2012

Our opponents’ most prominent line of attack these days is that same-sex marriage is a threat to religious liberty. Here’s a primer suggesting ways to debate them. You can download it here and store it on your tablet or phone for quick reference.

Essential Points

Here are single-sentence points that you can get out in one breath (maybe two). The idea is create a flow:  Shift their objection from same-sex marriage to discrimination; point out their inconsistency on the issue, and question the integrity of their sources (e.g, National Organization for Marriage and its allies).

  1. NOM’s alleged violations of religious liberty are usually about discrimination law, not same-sex marriage – in fact, many of their favorite examples come from states that haven’t legalized same-sex marriage.
  1. The American people may be evenly divided on same-sex marriage, but they strongly oppose discrimination, as shown by poll after poll.
  1. The same anti-discrimination laws that protect gays and lesbians also protect Christians and other religious people – in fact, religious people have more protection against discrimination than gays and lesbians.
  1. Discrimination laws have existed a long time but our opponents never complained about the threat to religious liberty until gays came into the picture, making one wonder: is it really about religious freedom, or is it about the gays?
  1. People who want to be exempted from discrimination law are really asking for special rights.
  1. NOM has lied to its own supporters about the threat to religious freedom in order to get money from them.

Getting back on track

You’re unlikely to be able control the flow of the conversation, so here are some questions you can ask when things go awry, especially when they start citing examples of religious liberty violations:

  • Where did you get your information? Here’s my phone – can we look it up?
  • Is this from the U.S.? We have the First Amendment here, and that makes us different from other countries.
  • Was same-sex marriage even legal where this happened? If not, how can it be about same-sex marriage?
  • Is this about same-sex marriage or discrimination law?
  • Does your example involve taxpayer money? Groups that get taxpayer money shouldn’t discriminate against law-abiding taxpayers.
  • Do you think it’s wrong to make Catholic employers recognize the marriages of their employees who have divorced and remarried? If so, why haven’t you been crusading about that before? If not, then how can you claim this is about the principle of religious liberty?
  • If you (mistakenly) think pastors can be jailed for criticizing gays, then why haven’t gays been jailed for criticizing anti-gay pastors? The laws that protect gays are the exact same laws that protect religion. In fact, religion is more strongly protected in many places than sexual orientation, never the other way around.
  • Were your “martyrs” punished just for being anti-gay, or did they violate other laws (trespassing, vandalism, incitement to violence, etc.)?


Now here are a few of our opponents’ favorite examples of the threat to religious liberty, the ones you’re most likely to hear, each of them debunked according to the points above. The most potent bullets are in bold.

Ocean Grove Camp Meeting Association
A favorite examples is Ocean Grove Camp Meeting Association, a New Jersey ministry that lost a property tax exemption on an outdoor pavilion after they didn’t let a lesbian couple use it for a commitment ceremony. HIT THEM HARD IF THEY BRING THIS UP! It usually takes the form, “a Methodist organization lost its tax-exempt status for refusing to allow lesbian couples to have civil-union ceremonies at a public seaside pavilion owned by the group,” (from the Wall Street Journal).

  • This is about discrimination law, not same-sex marriage (which wasn’t legal in New Jersey)
  • The group didn’t lose its tax exempt status. It lost its property tax exemption on one beachfront structure.
  • The lost property tax exemption was not based on religious grounds, but on a special program for non-profit corporations that made facilities available to the public on an equal basis.
  • When Ocean Grove violated this agreement, they lost the exemption on that pavilion. But they later applied for a religious tax exemption on the pavilion and they got it!
  • This case actually demonstrates how religious freedom is protected, not how it’s threatened. How can we take this threat seriously if your best examples disprove your point?
  • Or, in talking point format: This only happened because they applied for the wrong kind of tax exemption, one that required their property to be open to everyone. Once they applied on religious grounds, they got their exemption back and now they can discriminate to their hearts’ content.

Town Clerks in New York state
Some Town Clerks in New York resigned rather than sign marriage licenses for same-sex couples, and the demand that they sign such documents is a violation of religious freedom. This example really chaps my hide, far more than the others.

  • Talking point:  You’ve got government employees demanding you pass their personal religious test before they’ll help you. That’s not religious freedom. In fact, it’s the opposite.
  • More technically, when a Town Clerk signs a marriage license, she’s not personally endorsing the couple’s relationship – she’s merely attesting to the accuracy of the information in the document. Refusing to sign the license means she is lying about what’s written in the document.
  • And all those promises that they’ll refer the same-sex couple to another Town Clerk who’s willing to do their job? What hypocrisy. “I couldn’t possibly do this terrible thing myself, but don’t worry, I’ll do my best to make sure it happens anyway.”
  • Does a Town Clerk’s religious freedom include the right to deny a marriage license to a divorced Catholic who is remarrying?  If so, is it really freedom to give government officials so much control over your life? And if not, then this isn’t really about the freedom of the clerks after all – it’s all about the gays.

That New Mexico photographer

A New Mexico photographer was fined by the state’s human rights commission after he refused to photograph a lesbian couple’s commitment ceremony.

  • This is about discrimination law, not same-sex marriage (which isn’t legal in New Mexico)
  • If you think this is wrong (and even some gay activists do), then your problem is with discrimination law, not same-sex marriage.
  • Imagine a gay photographer who didn’t want to photograph an opposite-sex wedding in a church that vigorously fought against marriage equality. He would be fined for religious discrimination under that same law!
  • Is NOM opposed to that as well? If so, then the issue is discrimination law, not same-sex marriage. If not, then…what hypocrites! So much for all their talk about liberty. Sounds like it’s all about the gays.

(By the way, I bolded that point above because you can adapt it to disarm almost any claimed threat to liberty stemming from discrimination law.)

Catholic Charities of Boston (and elsewhere)
Catholic Charities of Boston shut down its adoption services in Massachusetts when same-marriage became law because the state did not allow them to discriminate against legally-married couples just because they’re same-sex couples. This is trickier, because it does involve same-sex marriage.

  • Be careful: Some folk claim that Catholic Charities should got no religious exemption because it takes tons of money from the government in exchange for its services. But while it’s true they get government money, they wouldn’t be allowed to discriminate even if they turned that money down.
  • If you do want to mention the government money thing, here’s a nice phrasing:  People who get taxpayer money shouldn’t discriminate against law-abiding taxpayers.
  • I’d go with “Why is this only an issue when it comes to gays?”
  • Catholic Charities couldn’t discriminate against parents based on religion (as the LDS church discovered in Massachusetts). Isn’t this a violation of religious freedom?
  • NOM’s Maggie Gallagher once wrote, “The only to the Father is through the Son.” So shouldn’t she be fighting tooth and nail for Catholic Charities right to discriminate against Jews? I mean, it’s all about the welfare of the child, right?
  • The state has required the Church to recognize all sorts of marriages that violate doctrine, for years and years, without public outcry.
  • For instance, the Church recognizes two Baptists married by a Baptist minister as validly married, but not a Catholic and a Baptist married by that same minister. Yet state law forbids discrimination on those grounds.
  • So is it really about religious liberty, or just about the gays?

Naval chaplains
Here’s an example of fraud and deceit. NOM send out a fundraising appeal: “Last April, the Navy issued new ‘sensitivity training’ guidelines that required Navy chaplains to perform same-sex marriages. Thanks to leadership from Congressmen Tim Huelskamp and Todd Akin, the Navy backed down and rescinded the guidelines.”

  • Total bull. If you need more assurance than that, here’s a reference  with links to the relevant documents.
  • NOM has this on their blog, but the email version of this deception had multiple “DONATE” buttons embedded in it.
  • NOM is lying to its supporters to get money.
  • If NOM’s  best examples of threats to religious freedom are so wrong, then why should we take them seriously?
  • Finally, why is NOM soliciting money under false pretenses?

Kel Munger

October 5th, 2012

Thank you. Very useful.


October 5th, 2012

Not bad.

Of course I wouldn’t recommend attempting to speak as if you have first hand knowledge as to the inner-workings of an opposition organization. Unless you have some sort of smoking-gun wherein they’re cynically announcing their motivations I’d recommend leaving NOM out of the argument.

Otherwise, very useful. Thanks! I shall use this.



October 5th, 2012

Thank you, Rob. You really have a gift for seeing, and cogently refuting, the flaws in these anti-gay arguments.


October 6th, 2012

Might i ask where does it legally state that catholic adoption agencies cannot refuse a jewish/muslim/atheist couple attempting to adopt with or without tax exemption?

I’m not really sure for the ‘town clerk’ points, seems to focus only on the same-sex couple trying to register at a government instead of the town clerks themselves. Feels like red herrings, what about the town clerk’s religious freedom, to not to be forced to approve of the same sex couple’s marriage license. What if they say yes to the last point?

Timothy Kincaid

October 6th, 2012

A town clerk does not have the religious freedom to deny access to civic services.

They cannot deny a fishing license because the recipient may fish on Sunday rather than go to church. They cannot deny a housing permit because the recipient is Hindu and is planning on using a room as a meditation space. They cannot deny a marriage license because they are Catholic and the bride-to-be is divorced. They cannot deny a business license because the restaurant will serve wine and they think alcohol is sinful.

Clerical duties are not directed by religious conviction. They are simply a task of administrative nature. No clerk signs a marriage license to indicate approval of the marriage. They sign that the paperwork is in order.

Reed B

October 6th, 2012

Excellent. And thank you. This is clear, concise, well-reasoned, and it reminds me of the often-cited, much-maligned, and still dear to my heart “After the Ball.” Facts, facts, facts, with appeals to both reason and empathy.

Priya Lynn

October 6th, 2012

Rob said “Some folk claim that Catholic Charities should got no religious exemption because it takes tons of money from the government in exchange for its services. But while it’s true they get government money, they wouldn’t be allowed to discriminate even if they turned that money down.”.

I know you reference one group that has stated this, but other respected sources say Catholic Charities could choose to discriminate if it turned down government money. The mormons operate an adoption agency in Massachusetts which doesn’t take government money and discriminates against gays wishing to adopt.

Here’s the truth about adoption in Massachusetts directly from the Mormons themselves:

“LDS Family Services still operates in Massachusetts, as it does in California. There are several differences between LDSFS and Catholic Charities. LDSFS does not take federal or state funds; Catholic Charities does. LDSFS facilitates only voluntary adoptions and permits the birth mother to approve the adoptive parents. Catholic Charities handled non-voluntary adoptions (where the state seizes the children) and normally did not accommodate birth mother approval. Catholic Charities had contracts with the state and was, in effect, acting as an agent of the state. LDSFS does not. To date, LDS Family Services has never been forced to place any children with a gay couple, and has never been sued for not doing so.”

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