Discriminatory “Religious Freedom” Bills: Marriage Refusal Edition

These bills are especially troublesome because they would allow government employees to discriminate in the name of religion.

We’ve been blogging a lot about state Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) bills that could potentially allow discrimination against the LGBT community in the name of religion. We have also been closely following a surge of “religious freedom” bills that would specifically permit individuals—and oftentimes government officials—to refuse to recognize, perform, or issue licenses for marriages.

These marriage refusal bills vary in breadth. Some are less problematic, albeit unnecessary: they merely state that clergy may refuse to perform any marriage based on religious beliefs, which is something clergy are already entitled to do.

Most of the bills, however, are highly objectionable. Generally, these bills would allow anyone, including government employees, to refuse to perform a marriage or issue a license to same-sex couples, or to any couple, to which they have a religious objection. But, each bill varies from state to state. 

These bills are especially troublesome because they would allow government employees to discriminate in the name of religion. Those who are paid by the taxpayers should serve all people equally and fairly; the government should never fund discrimination.

More than 20 marriage refusal bills have been introduced in states during the 2015 state legislative sessions. Of those, four are actively moving, ten have died, and eight are sitting in committees and haven’t moved. Here’s a rundown of the bills that are moving:

Alabama: House Bill 56 would allow anyone, including government employees, to refuse to participate or provide services in any marriage ceremony or celebration for any reason. The broad language of the bill would also allow state-funded agencies, like hospitals, homeless shelters, and food banks to deny services and benefits to any couple whose marriage they oppose. HB 56 has already passed the House chamber and was assigned to the Senate Health and Human Services Committee.

North Carolina: Senate Bill 2 is another bill that would allow magistrates and Registers of Deeds—public officials—to refuse to perform any marriage due to their religious objections. If a magistrate has recused him- or herself, the Administrative Office of the Courts must ensure that a magistrate who will perform all marriages is available somewhere in that jurisdiction. Although it provides more protection for those seeking to marry than some of the other bills, it is still highly problematic. The dignity harm of being refused equal treatment remains, and it would potentially force couples to endure additional loopholes and embarrassing complications while trying to get their marriage license. This legislation has already passed the Senate Chamber and is awaiting action in the House Judiciary Committee.

Oklahoma: House Bill 1007 does two things. First, it reaffirms that clergy can refuse to perform marriages to which they object. Second, it explicitly allows religious organizations to refuse to provide religious-based services that have anything to do with “solemnizing, celebrating, strengthening or promoting a marriage, such as religious counseling programs, courses, retreats, and workshops.” HB 1007 has passed the House chamber and currently sits in the Senate Judiciary Committee.

Utah: Senate Bill 297 is titled “Protections for Religious Expression and Beliefs about Marriage, Family, or Sexuality.” This bill as originally drafted would have allowed government officials to refuse to solemnize a marriage if it violated a religious or deeply held belief. Fortunately it was amended so that only religious officials or religious organizations can refuse to solemnize or recognize a marriage. Similar to the Oklahoma bill, religious officials and organizations can also refuse to provide goods, accommodations, and other services for activities associated with the celebration of a marriage with which they disagree. Both the House and Senate have already passed the bill and it was delivered to Governor Herbert for his signature on March 17.

Although the language of these bills differs, all of them are part of the backlash from those who object to the rise of marriage equality. Their goal is promote the idea that it’s acceptable to treat some couples differently and discriminatorily. To stay up to date on marriage refusal bills in your state, sign up for AU action alerts!