Religious Freedom Not Harmed by Tenth Circuit Decision in Utah Marriage Case

The Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals today affirmed the decision of a federal district court in Utah, ruling the state’s ban on same-sex marriage unconstitutional, making it the first federal court of appeals to rule on the issue after a slew of district courts struck down same-sex marriage bans in states across the country following last year’s Supreme Court decision striking down the Defense of Marriage Act.

Like many of the district court opinions, the Tenth Circuit today rejected arguments that marriage equality infringes on the religious freedom of its opponents. Because, the court noted, it ruled that same-sex marriage is a fundamental right protected by the Constitution, its opponents cannot argue against it based on claims that legalizing it would result in infringements of religious freedom or create religious strife.

The opinion makes clear there is no infringement of religious freedom as a result of its decision:

We also emphasize, as did the district court, that today’s decision relates solely to civil marriage. . . . Plaintiffs must be accorded the same legal status presently granted to married couples, but religious institutions remain as free as they always have been to practice their sacraments and traditions as they see fit. We respect the views advanced by members of various religious communities and their discussions of the theological history of marriage. And we continue to recognize the right of the various religions to define marriage according to their moral, historical, and ethical precepts. Our opinion does not intrude into that domain or the exercise of religious principles in this arena. The right of an officiant to perform or decline to perform a religious ceremony is unaffected by today’s ruling.

Opponents of marriage equality have long argued that it infringes on religious freedom in other ways, outside the walls of churches, standing up, they say, for the bakers and photographers who don’t want to supply their services to same-sex weddings or commitment ceremonies. But the Tenth Circuit shot down that argument as well, pointing out in a footnote that “although Appellants suggest that religious institutions might be subject to hypothetical lawsuits under various scenarios, such lawsuits would be a function of anti-discrimination law, not legal recognition of same-sex marriage.” In other words, opposition to marriage equality cannot override existing state and local laws that prohibit discrimination in public accommodations. Such protections exist with or without marriage equality.

While  the Supreme Court will ultimately decide this, it looks like “religious freedom” arguments against marriage equality have failed to gain traction in the courts.