The Respect for Marriage Act is a “deceptive” title that “disrespects countless Americans'” sincerely held biblical views of marriage, according to Christian legal firm Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF). ADF also warned that the legislation is a potential threat to the religious liberty of millions of Americans.
ADF is one of over 80 conservative groups that took action after the House of Representatives passed the Respect for Marriage Act. Proponents of the bill say it is intended to codify same-sex marriage in all 50 states in the event that Obergefell v. Hodges is overturned, but ADF and others say it does much more than that. The army of conservatives sent a letter to Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell urging him and his colleagues to “reject” and “abandon this harmful and unnecessary legislation.” The letter concludes with a warning that such a law would “stigmatize and take rights away” from Americans — “especially those belonging to people of faith.”
Matt Sharp, senior counsel for ADF, joined John Wesley Reid to elaborate on the illegitimacy of this bill and why ADF joined the signatories of this letter to McConnell.
Sharp began by pointing out the irony of the bill’s title, which actually disrespects the institution of marriage for millions of Americans who have long-believed that marriage is the union between one man and one woman. In addition, Sharp says that this bill “is a wolf in sheep’s clothing” that would threaten the religious liberty of the same community that holds to a biblical view of marriage.
“The deceptively named Respect for Marriage Act really disrespects countless Americans that hold to the belief that marriage is between a man and a woman. And although the proponents say this is just merely codifying the Obergefell decision, when you look at it, it goes far beyond that and grants not only the federal government broadened new sweeping powers to go after people of faith — those that believe marriage is between a man and a woman — but could potentially even jeopardize the tax-exempt status of many non-profits out there and give private groups like the ACLU the ability to sue people that hold to that belief that marriage is between a man and a woman.”
That threat to religious liberty is no conspiracy theory. Before and after the 2015 Obergefell decision, several Christians saw their faith come under attack simply for refusing to contribute their voice towards activities that violate their religious convictions.
Jack Phillips, owner of Masterpiece Cakeshop, was sued in 2012 for refusing to custom-design a cake for a same-sex wedding ceremony. Phillips did not refuse to serve the gay couple nor did he refuse to sell them products for their wedding. Phillips simply refused to custom-design a cake for the wedding, arguing that his artistic skills (which are widely admired within his community) are a means of speech and he would not use these God-given skills to support activity that violates God’s Word. Phillips ultimately found victory at the Supreme Court in 2018 in Masterpiece Cakeshop v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission. But since then, several others in similar scenarios have found themselves in the judicial pipeline with no certainty of a victory.
These legal attacks were not unforeseen. Sharp pointed out that Justice Alito, who ruled in the minority in Obergefell, knew this would compromise the religious liberty of those who hold to a biblical view of marriage.
“During the oral argument [of Obergefell], one of the most chilling responses was Justice Alito asking Donald Verrilli, the Solicitor General in the U.S., about some of these religious liberty concerns. And he brought up the example of a religious college that holds to the view that marriage is between a man and a woman and said, ‘Is their tax-exempt status at risk?’ And the Solicitor General of the United States said, “Yes, that is going to be an issue.” And we’re now seeing this play out.”
Justice Alito, who conservatives rally behind as an ideologically dependable jurist, wasn’t the only voice to warn of this potential impact on religious freedom. Even Justice Kennedy, whose libertarian swing vote made him unpredictable at times, foresaw the threat. Kennedy, who voted in the majority in Obergefell, wrote the opinion of the Court and concluded by recognizing and even validating the concern for religious liberty, saying:
“Finally, it must be emphasized that religions, and those who adhere to religious doctrines, may continue to advocate with utmost, sincere conviction that, by divine precepts, same-sex marriage should not be condoned. The First Amendment ensures that religious organizations and persons are given proper protection as they seek to teach the principles that are so fulfilling and so central to their lives and faiths, and to their own deep aspirations to continue the family structure they have long revered.”
Three years later, Kennedy would author the opinion of the Court in Masterpiece Cakeshop v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission where he candidly accuses the lower courts of failing to render a posture of neutrality toward Jack Phillips’ religion. Thankfully, Phillips saw a victory with a 7-2 decision, including two from the Court’s left bloc, Justices Breyer and Kagan.
But the Respect for Marriage Act is written with the woes of liberal angst throughout it, likely stemming from Phillips’ victory and the potential victory for a major upcoming case, 303 Creative v. Elenis, which carries similar legal blueprints as Masterpiece Cakeshop. Sharp expounds:
“With the Respect for Marriage Act, we’re now seeing Congress giving people the power to sue religious organizations, nonprofit organizations, faith-based adoption, and foster care providers that simply want to continue to operate consistent with their beliefs about marriage. So that warning that happened in Obergefell, that the dissent warned about, that others warned about, we’re starting to see play out, and I think this is one of many of those efforts to punish people of faith.”
This is a dramatic ideological shift from the 1990s, when the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) and the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) were passed. Then-Sen. Joe Biden along with many of his Democrat colleagues — many of whom are still in Congress today — voted in favor of both RFRA and DOMA. Now their tune has shifted. Sharp continued:
“When they passed RFRA, when they passed DOMA, when they passed these, there was a deep respect for countless Americans, people of all faiths, even people of no faith, that still said, ‘Marriage matters,’ and that there’s something important about the union between a man and a woman, for society, for human flourishing for kids and families. And we’re now seeing this reversal, not only just moving away from that understanding of marriage, but saying, ‘And if you still hold to that view, that view that has been held by every society since before recorded human history, if you still hold on to that view, you need to be punished. You need to be prosecuted for holding onto that view.'”
Given the tumultuous paradigm movement of today, Reid asked Sharp to provide guidance for young Christians who wish to be influential in the political sphere. He responded,
“Don’t be afraid to speak up. I know these are tough issues, and that we’re standing against a lot of forces. But these things matter: marriage matters, family matters, religious freedom and free speech matter. And so have the courage to stand up, because when you do, you’re going to see others emboldened by what you do. And that’s how you can really bring about change in the political process — by being willing to file the lawsuit or run for Congress or whatever it is to make a difference and stand for these values. So hold on to that courage to stand for what’s right.”
Ready to dive deeper into the intersection of faith and policy? Head over to our Theology of Politics series page where we’ve published several long-form pieces that will help Christians navigate where their faith should direct them on political issues.