January 18, 2013

The Knights of Columbus and Rhode Island's Proposed Same-Sex Marriage Law

Carroll Andrew Morse

Rhode Islanders United For Marriage, a same-sex marriage advocacy coalition, issued a press release yesterday which included a fact-check style response to a paid advertisement run in the Warwick Beacon by the National Organization for Marriage, a same-sex marriage opposition group. The press release claimed that the NOM ad contained "falsehoods and misleading statements". The first "fact check" item read...

Claim: Faith organizations, such as the Knights of Columbus, will be forced to host same-sex weddings in their facilities against their will.

Fact: A Vermont inn refused to host a same-sex wedding and was penalized. However, the legal repercussions were not due to Vermont’s marriage equality law, but rather a state anti-discrimination law.

The inn owners cited “personal feelings” to justify their decision not to host the wedding of a lesbian couple. But Vermont’s Fair Housing and Public Accommodations Act prohibits public accommodations, such as inns, restaurants and schools that serve the public, “from denying goods and services based on customers’ sexual orientation.” Rhode Island law currently prohibits discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and HB5015 will not change affect that protection.

This analysis by RIers United for Marriage -- especially as it relates to what might happen in Rhode Island -- is incomplete at best, ignoring specific protections for religious organizations that are part of existing Vermont law, but have no analog in the proposed RI law.

The claim in the press release begins with a "faith organization", yet the supposed debunking discusses a privately owned inn. Note, for the record, that most privately owned inns are not considered to be "faith organizations". The difference is significant, because Vermont specifically refers to the intersection of marriage and religiously-affiliated organizations in its public accommodations law...

4502(l) - Notwithstanding any other provision of law, a religious organization, association, or society, or any nonprofit institution or organization operated, supervised, or controlled by or in conjunction with a religious organization, association, or society, shall not be required to provide services, accommodations, advantages, facilities, goods, or privileges to an individual if the request for such services, accommodations, advantages, facilities, goods, or privileges is related to the solemnization of a marriage or celebration of a marriage.
Presumably, the Knights of Columbus are covered somewhere in the opening legalese.

If this section of Vermont law were not in force, then whatever action was taken against the owners of the inn could also have been initiated against the Knights of Columbus. This is an important fact for the fact-checkers to consider, since protections for religious organizations in Vermont law (and in Connecticut law, and in New York law and in New Hampshire law, for that matter) are much broader than the corresponding provisions in the proposed Rhode Island SSM law. The "protection of freedom of religion in marriage" in the House's SSM bill extends no further than statements that clergypeople are not required to officiate or solemnize any marriage and that religious organizations can control their own doctrine, and would not cover activities like usage of K of C facilities.

(Whether the supposed "protection of freedom of religion in marriage" provisions in the House's same-sex marriage bill mean anything at all is itself an open question, i.e. in their absence, could the state actually begin to order churches to perform marriages in accordance with a new state-mandated marriage doctrine?)

Now, technically speaking, it is accurate for Rhode Islanders United for Marriage to claim that the proposed law doesn't weaken any existing protections for religious organizations with respect to same-sex marriage -- but only because current Rhode Island law does not presume the existence of same-sex marriage, so there is nothing in the law directly related to SSM to weaken. Current Rhode Island law does, however, provide a section on conscience and religious organization protection with respect to civil unions that is similar in spirit to the law in Vermont...

15-3.1-5. Conscience and religious organizations protected (a) Notwithstanding any other provision of law to the contrary, no religious or denominational organization, no organization operated for charitable or educational purpose which is supervised or controlled by or in connection with a religious organization, and no individual employed by any of the foregoing organizations, while acting in the scope of that employment, shall be required:

(1) To provide services, accommodations, advantages, facilities, goods, or privileges for a purpose related to the solemnization, certification, or celebration of any civil union; or

(2) To solemnize or certify any civil union; or

(3) To treat as valid any civil union; if such providing, solemnizing, certifying, or treating as valid would cause such organizations or individuals to violate their sincerely held religious beliefs.

(b) No organization or individual as described in subsection (a) above who fails or refuses to provide, solemnize, certify, or treat as valid, as described in subdivision (a)(1), (a)(2) or (a)(3) above, persons in a civil union, shall be subject to a fine, penalty, or other cause of action for such failure or refusal.

If the words "civil union" in this section of the law were changed to "marriage", then it would be clear that a Knights of Columbus chapter could not be sued for not accommodating a same-sex marriage, but that is not a proposal on the proverbial table at the moment. Whether Rhode Island's same sex marriage advocates are wedded (har har) to the barely-existent to non-existent protections for religious freedom incorporated in the current House bill remains to be seen.

Statutes from other New England States and New York concerning same sex marriage and religious organizations and beliefs are available here.

Comments, although monitored, are not necessarily representative of the views Anchor Rising's contributors or approved by them. We reserve the right to delete or modify comments for any reason.

Actually the owners of the Wildflower Inn were willing to host gay weddings, it was a rogue employee, acting without the owners permission who denied the request. The O'Reillys new what the law said, and were willing to abide by it, even though they disagreed

Posted by: Sammy in Arizona at January 20, 2013 3:19 PM

new= knew

Posted by: Sammy in Arizona at January 20, 2013 3:21 PM
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