Updated: October 10, 2013 7:06PM
The same-sex marriage bill proposed for Illinois has generated both deep support and grave worry since its introduction last winter. One of the public’s deepest fears is that legalizing same-sex marriage in Illinois will trample the religious freedoms of its opponents by forcing them to aid same-sex couples in marrying.
To be sure, marriage equality will change the social landscape. But the claim that the marriage quality bill, the Religious Freedom and Marriage Fairness Act (known as SB10), will erode religious freedom is simply untrue. Members of the Chicago Coalition of Welcoming Churches, Catholics for Marriage Equality — Illinois, and other religious folk will be heading to the Capitol for the Oct. 22 March on Springfield for marriage equality to make exactly this point. That date marks the start of the fall legislative session.
Consider three common myths that stand in the way of religious support for the bill.
Myth 1: SB10 would force religious functionaries to marry gay and lesbian couples. In Illinois religious organizations and leaders may refuse to officiate at any wedding. They already do so whenever they decline to marry people who do not fit their criteria for marriage, for whatever reason: divorce, non-membership in the religious community, cohabitation before marriage, unwillingness to go through the community’s marriage- preparation process, and the like. SB10 does not force religious communities to accommodate same-sex partner weddings; these couples can still marry in a civil setting.
Myth 2: SB10 would force religious organizations to accommodate and accept married gays and lesbians. On the contrary, the Religious Freedom and Marriage Fairness Act would not alter the obligations that any organization has to gays and lesbians under Illinois’s human-rights and public-accommodations act. If an organization or business is obligated to welcome, serve, or employ partnered or unpartnered gays and lesbians now, it would be obligated to welcome, serve, or employ people married to same-sex partners later. If it is not obligated under the act now, it would not be required to accommodate married gays and lesbians in the future.
Myth 3: SB10 is an unprecedented departure of marriage law from religious ideas of marriage. Marriage was a social and legal institution before it was a Christian one. In the United States, there has often been quite a lot of daylight between civil law and mainstream Christian definitions of marriage. For instance, polygamy — historically prohibited by almost all American religious groups except some Muslims and nineteenth-century Latter-day Saints — did not become illegal in U.S. territories until 1862. Prohibitions against interracial marriage — which few religious groups have explicitly prohibited — were not overturned until 1967.
Nor are state standards consistent. For instance, in New Hampshire, girls as young as 13 can marry with parental and judicial permission. In Mississippi everyone under age 21 needs parental consent, and girls under 15 cannot marry at all. Yet in theory reciprocity holds: the marriage of a thirteen-year-old from New Hampshire is valid if she moves to Mississippi. And none of these laws bears any relationship to diverse religious guidelines for age and maturity at marriage.
For let’s not forget that early Christians considered marriage a civil state, not a religious one. One of Christianity’s most beloved thinkers, Saint Paul, begrudgingly admitted that marriage was better than all-consuming lust; ideally, Christians would remain single and celibate. Western Christianity remained ambivalent about marriage until the sixteenth century, when Martin Luther declared it a genuine religious vocation more admirable than celibacy. In short, there is no consistent, coherent Western Christian historical approach to marriage to which law can adhere, never mind a consistent contemporary religious approach to marriage in our pluralist state.
Where does the religious freedom case lie, then? If we look seriously at Western tradition, we have to admit that civil marriage is really a civil issue, not a religious one. But even supposing that it is a religious issue, there is only one group whose religious freedoms are being curtailed in the current system: men and women whose religious traditions embrace same-sex marriage.
Unless our representatives hear that message directly from us, Illinois risks restricting religious freedom — by denying same-sex couples the right to marry.
Cristina L.H. Traina has been a fellow with The OpEd Project’s Public Voices Fellowship at Northwestern University, where she is a professor of religious studies.