The New York Legislature has just approved a bill permitting same-sex marriage in the nation’s third most populous state. The hold-up for the past week was a debate over what is called the “religious exemptions,” granting special rights to people who, for ostensibly religious reasons, object to same-sex marriage. For example, will the Knights of Columbus be required to open its halls for same-sex weddings? Will Catholic adoption agencies be allowed to refuse to place children with same-sex married couples? Can a Muslim caterer or chauffeur lawfully refuse to serve a same-sex wedding?
The religious exemption push is a ploy for elevating God experts above the laws that apply to the rest of us. Suppose, for example, that a non-believer declines to photograph a same-sex wedding not for any religious reasons, but just because he finds the whole idea offensive – that “guys kissing guys” is really gross. Nothing in any of the proposed exemptions would cover that. But if it’s God telling him to stay away, that’s different.
The exemption finally adopted by the legislature Friday night does not go as far as the God experts wanted. It covers only religious organizations and clergy, not just individuals claiming religious belief. “Religious organizations,” though, covers a lot more than churches, including any affiliated group like the Knights of Columbus. Ordinary caterers and photographers are not exempted. It shouldn’t be a demanding legal challenge, though, for haters to affiliate themselves with some sort of church organization so they can thumb their nose at the law as well.
The new exemption for religious organizations covers a lot more than same sex marriage. “Nothing in this article shall limit …[any such religious organization] from taking such action as is calculated by such organization to promote the religious principles for which it is established or maintained.” I’m not a New York lawyer, but it looks to me like this guarantees the right of religious adoption agencies to refuse to serve legitimately married New York couples of whom they disapprove, such as couples belonging to the same sex.
What’s more, this new religious exemption is in no way limited to same sex marriage. It allows these organizations, most of which are tax exempt, to discriminate against anyone, at any time, for any reason that they allege will promote their religious principles. Historically, God-based discrimination in matters of marriage and family has centered far more on race than on sexual preference, so the legal door is now open to roll back 60 years of racial progress.
God’s disdain for sexual race-mixing goes all the way back to the Old Testament, which was as clear as it could be on the question of Jews marrying non-Jews: “And when the Lord thy God shall deliver them before thee; thou shalt smite them, and utterly destroy them; thou shalt make no covenant with them, nor shew mercy unto them: Neither shalt thou make marriages with them; thy daughter thou shalt not give unto his son, nor his daughter shalt thou take unto thy son.” When Ezra returned to Jerusalem from Babylon he was shocked:
For they have taken of their daughters for themselves, and for their sons: so that the holy seed have mingled themselves with the people of those lands: yea, the hand of the princes and rulers hath been chief in this trespass. And when I heard this thing, I rent my garment and my mantle, and plucked off the hair of my head and of my beard, and sat down astonished.
God experts in the New World relied on these passages and others to persuade civil authorities to pass laws against miscegenation as early as 1660. Eventually, thirty different states banned interracial marriage. Six of them put the ban in their state constitutions; Mississippi made mixed-race marriage a felony punishable by life imprisonment. Just as with same-sex marriage today, the opposition to mixed-race marriage was overwhelmingly cast in religious terms – it had to be, because common-sense arguments were so unpersuasive. For example, Richmond’s Christian Herald explained in 1877 that “God has made the two races widely different not only in complexion, but in their instincts and social qualities. We take it for granted it was not the purpose of the Creator that they should be blended. Nature abhors the union.”
William M. Brown, bishop of the Episcopal Church of Arkansas warned that if the black race were “absorbed” and the white race “ruined as a result of intermarriage,” then
God’s plan in the creation of the two races, so far as America is concerned, would be defeated. … Inasmuch as God made yellow, black and white people, instead of only black or yellow, or white when He could have made all any one of these colors, it must be concluded that He had some great purpose to accomplish in doing so. Hence, the amalgamation of the races, or the aping of one by the other, must be wrong because it thwarts God’s plan.
In 1930, Senator Thomas Heflin used the Senate floor to propound God’s views on the marriage of a black man and white woman in New York City, which took place the previous fall:
God had a purpose in making four separate and distinct races. The white, the red, the yellow, and the black. God intended that each of the four races should preserve its blood free from mixture with other races and preserve race integrity and prove itself true to the purpose that God had in mind for each of them when He brought them into being. The great white race is the climax and crowning glory of God’s creation. … The fact that the Roman Catholic Church permits negroes and whites to belong to the same Catholic Church and to go to the same Catholic schools and permits and sanctions the marriage between whites and negroes in the United States is largely responsible for the loose, dangerous, and sickening conditions that exist in New York City and State today.
Even former President Harry Truman told a reporter in 1963 that mixed-race marriage “ran counter to the teachings of the Bible,” while evangelist Jerry Falwell warned that miscegenation would "destroy our [white] race eventually."
A unanimous Supreme Court invalidated state laws against miscegenation in 1967, but it has taken a while to remove those laws from the statute books. When a referendum was held in 2000 to do so in Alabama, our second most religious state, over 40% of the electorate voted “No.” Those who have studied the data conclude that white voters split almost 50-50 on the question.
Then there are the Mormons, who teach that people are born non-white because their souls committed grievous sins back during their pre-birth period. According to the refreshingly blunt Brigham Young: “Shall I tell you the law of God in regard to the African race? If the white man who belongs to the chosen seed mixes his blood with the seed of Cain, the penalty, under the law of God, is death on the spot. This will always be so.” Mormon children learned from their “Juvenile Instructor” manual that “In fact we believe it to be a great sin in the eyes of our Heavenly Father for a white person to marry a black one. And further, that it is a proof of the mercy of God that no such race appear able to continue for many generations.” The Mormons have allowed miscegenation since receiving a new revelation from one of their Gods in 1978. It’s interesting, though, that a certain presidential candidate chose to spend two years of his life as a missionary spreading the Mormon race message a decade before this change was made.
I’m not complaining about the New York legislators. The majority swallowed a distasteful compromise to achieve a greater goal, proving that the profoundly humanist ideal of democracy can actually work, at least in fits and starts. But once again, the 11th Commandment prevails: Rules are for schmucks. God experts do what they want.