Marriage bill is fair, and clergy rights are preserved

September 16, 2013

Vanessa Chong is the Executive Director of the ACLU of Hawaii. Her piece originally appeared in the Star-Advertiser on September 15th. 

Each of us has the fundamental and constitutVanessaChongional right to practice our religion as we see fit. Freedom of religion is one of our most cherished, shared values, and it protects all of us. For Hawaii, in particular, it is in keeping with our long-standing tradition of respect for the diversity in our community while staying true to our commitment to fairness, dignity and equality for all people.

We uphold these principles for good reason: With freedom for all, everyone can flourish. We may not all agree about marriage for same-sex couples, but the proposed marriage equality law appropriately protects religious freedom.

Many religious faiths have specific rules about who can and cannot marry under their faith tradition. Some churches will recognize and perform marriages of same-sex couples, and some will not, just as some churches perform interfaith marriages and some will not.

The Constitution protects the right of clergy and religious institutions to decide which marriages they will participate in or support. The marriage law can’t, and won’t, change that.

The proposed law to allow marriage for same-sex couples very clearly protects the rights of Hawaii’s clergy: It says, unequivocally, that no clergy member will be required to preside over any wedding against her or his will, and that no clergy member can be sued, fined, or otherwise punished for refusing to officiate at any wedding.

Indeed, the bill is modeled after Hawaii’s civil unions law, which provides that the clergy may refuse to perform a civil union for any reason. No clergy member in Hawaii has been punished or penalized in any way for such a refusal. That is true across the country; not a single member of the clergy has ever been punished, sued, or otherwise penalized for refusing to solemnize a civil union or a marriage for a same-sex couple.

Some have suggested that Hawaii’s law should give greater special protections for religious organizations. Religious freedom, like all of the Constitution’s fundamental rights, are vibrant precisely because they delicately balance the needs of many interests but never sacrifice the basic principle of fairness.

In Hawaii, for-profit businesses are prohibited from discriminating against people because they are gay or lesbian. Allowing same-sex couples to marry fulfills the promise of fairness while also protecting the religious beliefs of all people about marriage.

Thirteen states and the District of Columbia already have the freedom to marry for same-sex couples, and a number of these states provide far fewer special protections for religious organizations than the law proposed for Hawaii. Yet, religious freedom and a commitment to equal treatment coexist in all those states.

The same will be true here. In fact, the ACLU would be the first organization to defend a religious group if they were unfairly treated.

Hawaii has debated marriage equality for more than 20 years. The upcoming special session will again provide an opportunity to decide whether to treat all of Hawaii’s families equally. Both the House and the Senate each will hold a public hearing on the proposed legislation, and, in fact, the Legislature will have the rare luxury of focusing on a single issue.

There will be a full and vigorous debate, and anyone who wishes to participate in the process may do so. This is a pivotal moment for Hawaii. What ultimately happens will say a lot about who we are and what is most important to us.

When the Legislature convenes on Oct. 28, fairness and equality take center stage. Join the majority of Hawaii voters, many clergy, business leaders, the president and the Hawaii congressional delegation to finally achieve fairness for all Hawaii families and move forward.