Conn. Codifies Religions’ Exemptions to Gay Marriage

by Kilian Melloy

EDGE Staff Reporter

Thursday April 23, 2009

With a measure that some see as more symbolic than necessary, Connecticut state lawmakers approved additional language to a law that grants gay and lesbian families the right to marry. The new amendment sets out in even starker terms exemptions designed to preserve the rights of churches that oppose marriage equality.

With family equality now a reality in Connecticut, groups that had expended effort to prevent gays and lesbians from enjoying equal family rights shifted focus in order to prevent what they viewed as a threat to the right of their own free exercise of religion.

An April 21 article in the Hartford Courant quoted a lawyer for the anti-gay Catholic lay organization The Knights of Columbus--a major contributor to the anti-marriage effort in last year's Proposition 8 battle in California--as calling "Freedom of religion [a] fundamental right that [has] been inscribed in our federal constitution forever."

Added the lawyer, John Droney, "It doesn't suddenly get put on the shelf because of this new, emerging right [or marriage for gay and lesbian families]."

If the Knights of Columbus and other anti-marriage groups had had their way, family equality would not be an "emerging right" in Connecticut or anywhere; with mainstream America now embracing the idea of some form of family equality for gays and lesbians, however, the battle has shifted to the seeking of guarantees that churches and people of faith will not see their freedom of religion infringed upon.

Some see the original marriage equality legislation as having posed no threat to anyone's freedom of worship. A follow-up article, appearing in the Hartford Courant on April 23, quoted openly gay state Rep. Beth Bye, a Democrat, who said that the new legislation was not called for to protect religious liberties, but that "there were people who felt it needed to be there."

However, that added level of protection for churches is important in assuaging fears based on what state Rep. Bye referred to as "so much misinformation out there" about gays and lesbians, their families, and what their right to legally recognized civil marriage would mean to people of faith.

One high profile example of a depiction of marriage equality as a threat to religious freedom is a $1.5 million television ad campaign launched by the Proposition 8-supporting National Organization for Marriage (NOM). In the ad, a multi-ethnic group of actors express fears about a "storm" of cultural change that will hand gays equal rights and inevitably diminish the rights of people of faith.

"I am afraid," recites one actress in the ad, while others voice concerns that they will lose the right to choose. (The ad does not specify what sorts of options the actors may wish to choose from.)

Though the ad targets marriage equality, the vague references to actual legal cases cited by the actors refer to anti-discrimination laws and policies.

The ad has been greeted as a cause celebre for parodists on YouTube and on comedy programs such as "The Colbert Report," a fake news show that riffed on the NOM ad, but has had little appreciable effect on the marriage issue itself.

The Connecticut House approved the amendment 100-44, the Courant reported. The vote came in the wake of a push from the Catholic Church and other anti-marriage groups, such as the anti-gay Family Institute of Connecticut; the campaign for the amendment included TV ads, automated phone calls, and sermons, the Courant reported.

The state Senate also supported the exemptions, 28-7.

While those advocating for the amendment language wanted florists, marriage counselors, photographers, and other small business owners also to enjoy an exemption from serving same-sex couples or same-sex wedding celebrations, lawmakers were not prepared to go that far. The approved amendment allows churches and church groups exemptions, but stops short of extending those same exemptions to businesses or justices of the peace.

Explained Andrew McDonald, an openly gay Democratic state Senator, "The simple fact is, you don't have the right to cherry-pick which constitutional protection you agree or disagree with."

McDonald was further quoted at an April 23 article that appeared at as saying of the amendment, "We wanted to make it completely clear that the state of Connecticut fully embraces not only the rights of same-sex couples to marry, but we fully embrace the rights and protections afforded by the First Amendment of the United States Constitution and the Connecticut Constitution to the free exercise of religion."

State Sen. Sam Caligiuri begged to differ. Caligiuri, a Republican who has set his sights on a seat in the U.S. Senate, was cited as voicing the opinion that the amendment needed to be broader in terms of exemptions.

By contrast, the head of the Family Institute of Connecticut greeted the approved amendment with optimism. Said Peter Wolfgang, "This has been a good day for religious liberty in Connecticut," the Courant reported.

"Not a perfect day, but a good day," added Wolfgang.

Lawmakers of both parties indicated a wish to move on with other business, with the Minority Leader of the state Senate, Republican John McKinney, saying, "The court's ruling... is the law in the state of Connecticut."

Added McKinney, "It's something we need to respect and understand and move on."

Democratic state Rep. Michael Lawlor was quoted as noting, "This is probably the last time these issues will ever be discussed in the state legislature."

The office of Connecticut Governor Jodi M. Rell has said that the governor plans to sign the legislation.

Kilian Melloy serves as EDGE Media Network's Associate Arts Editor and Staff Contributor. His professional memberships include the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association, the Boston Online Film Critics Association, The Gay and Lesbian Entertainment Critics Association, and the Boston Theater Critics Association's Elliot Norton Awards Committee.