Democrats, Marriage and Religious Freedom

by William C. Duncan

The Democratic party’s platform committee has approved a plank on redefining marriage. Here’s what it says:

We support the right of all families to have equal respect, responsibilities, and protections under the law. We support marriage equality and support the movement to secure equal treatment under law for same-sex couples. We also support the freedom of churches and religious entities to decide how to administer marriage as a religious sacrament without government interference.

We oppose discriminatory federal and state constitutional amendments and other attempts to deny equal protection of the laws to committed same-sex couples who seek the same respect and responsibilities as other married couples. We support the full repeal of the so-called Defense of Marriage Act and the passage of the Respect for Marriage Act.

A few observations:

  • The “all families” language is similar to the rhetoric from the Beyond Marriage folks and suggests a desire to avoid offending various other kinds of family relationships. Maybe this is the next stage in the “evolution” on family issues. This reading seems more plausible since the specific issue of marriage redefinition is set out in a separate sentence.
  • The party, assuming this plank remains in the final document, would be committed to same-sex marriage, full stop. There is no attempt in this statement to employ the president’s language about leaving the decision to the states. In fact, two sentences after endorsing “marriage equality” the statement commits the party to opposition of state marriage amendments.
  • The statement also seems to endorse the constitutional litigation against marriage laws, invoking the chief argument du jour which is that marriage laws violate Equal Protection guarantees. If that’s true there can be no principled federalism solution and no democratic solution unless it involves a legislative vote for redefining marriage.
  • The most interesting sentence is the feint about religious liberty. It’s hard to imagine a less generous concession. The party, in this statement, is committed to allowing churches (not individual people of faith or religious organizations) to “decide how to administer marriage as a religious sacrament.” This exceedingly narrow language should be taken as a warning to believers — the party is willing to let churches perform marriages in accordance with their doctrines (gee thanks) but that’s about it. On all of the other predictable religious-liberty conflicts (employment benefits, social services, business decisions), the plank says nothing. The italicized language even seems to suggest the party would consider removing the ability of clergy to civilly solemnize marriages.

Marriage is not a partisan issue and good pro-marriage Democrats will surely object to including this outlandish statement in the party’s platform. It should, however, focus the minds of those who care about marriage and religious freedom about what is at stake if the people who think this is a good idea are given power.

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