Leaders of religious organizations are expressing growing concern about the possible implications of the Supreme Court’s same-sex marriage decision later this month.
This week, more than 70 leaders in Christian education sent a letter to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., and House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, urging them to pass legislation that would protect schools from government discrimination based on their belief in the biblical definition of marriage.
The letter drew particular attention to an exchange between Justice Samuel Alito and Solicitor General Donald Verrilli during Supreme Court oral arguments in April. Alito asked Verrilli if universities that oppose same-sex marriage could lose their tax-exempt status in the same way Bob Jones University did for opposing interracial marriage.
“It’s certainly going to be an issue,” Verrilli replied. “I don’t deny that. I don’t deny that, Justice Alito. It is – it is going to be an issue.”
Photo by Gage Skidmore/Flickr
Utah Senator Mike Lee
Leaders of religious institutions said the implications of Verrilli’s statement could be “far-reaching” for the nation’s 29,000 religiously affiliated pre-schools, elementary schools, and high schools, in addition to the 1,700 religiously affiliated colleges and universities.
“The majority of these institutions hold to religious traditions that forbid sexual intimacy outside of marriage between one man and one woman, and will not jettison these convictions for any tax benefit,” said the letter, whose signers included Michael Farris, chancellor of Patrick Henry College, Al Mohler, president of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, and numerous school associations.
On Wednesday, Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, announced plans to re-file a bill that provides the protection the groups seek.
“The bill simply says federal government can’t take adverse action against a religious institution based on that institution’s belief in natural marriage,” Lee told a group of reporters in his Capitol Hill office. “That’s incompatible with our laws, that’s incompatible with who we are as a people, and that’s incompatible with our Constitution.”
Lee – who noted the legislation is much more narrow in scope than the state religious freedom laws that have sparked controversy in recent months – said the bill does nothing more than codify President Barack Obama’s 2013 promise not to force same-sex marriage on religious groups.
Lee filed a similar Senate measure in the last Congress, and a House version of the bill garnered 103 cosponsors. Lee said the current legislation has been tweaked and will receive a new name, but he plans to file it in the next week.
The senator announced his plan with four stakeholders: Jerry Johnson, president of National Religious Broadcasters; Samuel Oliver, president of Union University; Travis Weber with the Family Research Council; and Keith Wiebe, president of the American Association of Christian Schools, which represents some 800 faith-based K-12 schools.
All four speakers predicted faith-based institutions would hold to their beliefs, but they questioned at what cost. Johnson asked whether Christian radio stations would lose their licenses, and Oliver wondered whether Christian students would no longer be eligible for federal Pell grants.
“The consequences could be catastrophic,” Oliver said. “The state system would not be able to handle the huge influx of students who would be forced out of the private system.”
The proactive approach represents a change in tactics for many of the leaders, who have largely taken a wait-and-see approach to shifting cultural norms on same-sex marriage. They’re now taking their case to the public, warning of “devastating” effects that could loom ahead.
“To remove tax-exempt status from faith-based educational institutions because of their commitment to their beliefs about marriage would result in severe financial distress for those institutions and their millions of students,” the leaders wrote. “It would result in millions of students losing the choice of a faith-based educational experience that has been of historic value to the country for over 150 years.”
(EDITOR’S NOTE – J.C. Derrick is a reporter in WORLD’s Washington Bureau.)