Prof. Tom Farr of Georgetown U. on Marriage and Religious Liberty


In a recent interview in the National Catholic Register:

Yesterday, a group of U.S. religious leaders — including Catholics, Protestants, Orthodox Jews and Sikhs — released an “open letter,” “Marriage and Religious Freedom: Fundamental Goods That Stand or Fall Together.” Among other issues, the letter expressed alarm about the threat legal same-sex “marriage” poses to the free exercise of religion in this country.

This is a powerful statement. It is an encouraging and, frankly, very American phenomenon when religious groups with deep theological differences come together in defense of marriage and of religious freedom. The power of the statement comes from the truths it expresses. It sounds the alarm about the sweeping consequences for our society if the definition of marriage is overturned and about the threat to religious liberty implicit in such an act.

The letter itself is an example of religious liberty in action — public advocacy by religious actors on behalf of truths they hold sacred and which they believe central to protecting the common good.

There are those who would contend that this kind of public religious advocacy violates the separation of church and state. That reading of our Constitution is nonsense, but it exists, and it poses a danger both to marriage and religious freedom.

Consider Judge Vaughn Walker’s 2010 ruling on Proposition 8, the California referendum affirming marriage as between one man and one woman. He simply declared that the vote was in part motivated by religious and moral values, that those values did not and cannot meet constitutional standards of rationality, and that, therefore, the outcome of the referendum was unconstitutional.

Should this reasoning be more widely adopted by the courts, it would pose a severe threat to religious liberty by reducing the capacity of religious actors to prevail in democratic deliberation with religion-specific or even religiously derived moral arguments. It would implicate issues from marriage to abortion to the cloning of human beings for medical research.