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Religious protections on gay marriage in doubt

(MCT) — Illinois' gay marriage bill that awaits the governor's signature doesn't force religious clergy to officiate at same-sex weddings or compel churches to open their doors for ceremonies. But similar safeguards aren't spelled out for pastry chefs, florists, photographers and other vendors who, based on religious convictions, might not want to share a gay couple's wedding day.

The lack of broader exceptions worries some who fear an erosion of religious freedoms, even as supporters of the law say it will eliminate discrimination.

"We're going to have to wait for lawsuits to arrive," said Peter Breen, an attorney with the Thomas More Society, a socially conservative legal group.

Critics of the bill that positions Illinois to become the 15th state to allow gay marriage point out that, though it protects clergy and houses of worship, it doesn't spell out exemptions for people and businesses who, based on their religious beliefs, might not want to do business with same-sex couples.

The text of the bill makes clear that it doesn't alter two related laws: the Illinois Human Rights Act and the state's Religious Freedom Restoration Act.

The Human Rights Act prohibits discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation. The Religious Freedom Restoration Act allows exemptions from certain rules as long as those exceptions don't harm the welfare of society.

In addition to the problem faced by wedding vendors, opponents worry that the law could force some doctors, social workers and counselors to go against their personal beliefs by providing services to married same-sex couples, or have their licenses revoked.

Even before gay marriage passed in the General Assembly, the debate over whether religious liberties can trump prohibitions on discrimination was making its way through the legal system, with a downstate bed-and-breakfast waiting for the Illinois Human Rights Commission to rule on its decision not to host same-sex civil unions. The situation resembles others around the U.S., including a New Mexico Supreme Court case involving a Christian photographer who declined to participate in a lesbian commitment ceremony and an Oregon pastry chef whose refusal to bake a wedding cake for a same-sex couple sparked a complaint to the state labor board.

Supporters of Illinois' same-sex marriage bill point out that the business owners denied services to couples who were planning civil union or commitment ceremonies, not legal weddings.

"The basic question is whether people should be able to rely on their religion as a basis for discriminating, and that's true whether it's about a civil union or an interracial marriage or a commitment ceremony," said John Knight, a lawyer with the ACLU of Illinois who specializes in LGBT issues. "We think for the most part ... people shouldn't be able to rely on their religion as a basis for discriminating in their commercial businesses."

Even for religious entities, the exemption is not absolute. The law does not force clergy to perform same-sex weddings and it does not force churches or other religious organizations to allow same-sex wedding ceremonies in their places of worship, including sanctuaries, parish halls, fellowship halls and similar religious facilities.

But it also does not permit people or religious institutions to deny a same-sex couple the opportunity to rent any other venue for a same-sex marriage ceremony or celebration, if the venue is otherwise available to the public.

Take two popular wedding venues owned by Loyola University Chicago: Madonna Della Strada Chapel on the Loyola campus in Rogers Park and Cuneo Mansion and Gardens in Vernon Hills.

The law clearly allows Loyola to deny same-sex couples from marrying at Madonna Della Strada because it is a place of worship. But the mansion, an event venue that the university rents to the public, might not qualify for the same religious protections.

The university's current policy allows ceremonies at the mansion for marriages recognized by the state of Illinois. Asked if that policy will stand when the same-sex marriage law is to take effect in June, Loyola spokeswoman Maeve Kiley said the university is "evaluating" the situation.

In addition to objecting to the law on moral grounds, Catholic groups say the narrow exemption for clergy and places of worship fails to protect the religious freedoms of other religious entities such as hospitals, schools, nursing homes and social services.

Patrick Cacchione, executive director of the Illinois Catholic Health Association, points out that when Catholic Charities refused to issue foster care licenses to gay couples in civil unions, the state chose not to renew its contract, saying it violated the law.

"I couldn't have anticipated it," Cacchione said, recalling assurances from lawmakers that the civil union law would not interfere with the groups' social work. "I was shocked."

After that surprise consequence, Cacchione said, he expects the marriage law to produce "fallout that I can't even anticipate."

"That's what we fear going forward: the unknown, the implementation, the administration of this and the variety of different rules and regulations that we can't even imagine," he said.

(c)2013 the Chicago Tribune
Distributed by MCT Information Services

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