WASHINGTON — Americans United for Separation of Church and State announced Monday the launch of an "aggressive" initiative to combat any state or federal legislation, or court ruling seeking to protect religious objectors of same-sex marriage from government consequence for living according to their religious convictions.
The organization, which advocates a strict separation view of the religious freedom clauses of the First Amendment, has started the "Protect Thy Neighbor" project, which will monitor and battle all state and federal legislation and court challenges that pertain to giving individuals, business and religious institutions the right not to serve or participate in same-sex weddings on the basis that it would violate their religious beliefs.
In the wake of the Supreme Court's ruling on June 26 that it is unconstitutional for states to refuse issuing same-sex couples marriage licenses, the organization expects Christian conservatives to respond by introducing a plethora of bills, executive orders, regulatory and policy changes that are "designed to resist the Supreme Court's ruling."
"Those of us who value true equality, separation of church and state, equal treatment and government policies free of sectarian bias do not intend to be passive. We are going on the offensive," Rev. Barry W. Lynn, executive director of Americans United, said at a press conference at the National Press Club. "We will identify dangerous legislation at the state and federal levels and work to stop it. If those policies pass anyway, we will challenge them in court.
"We will work to put a stop to reckless definitions of 'religious freedom' that are really just excuses to infringe on the rights of others," he added.
Prior to the Supreme Court's ruling, Americans United worked to stop Religious Freedom Restoration Acts in Indiana, Arkansas and other states that could, but not necessarily would, provide businesses and individuals with greater religious protections from being forced to serve and participate in same-sex weddings.
There is concern among the Christian academic community that Christian universities and Christian schools could lose their tax-exempt statuses if they don't change their policies to allow married same-sex couples to live in married housing.
In response to a question from The Christian Post, Lynn, who is an ordained minister for the Church of Christ, contended that Christian colleges refusing to provide married housing to married same-sex couples is akin to schools not allowing interracial married couples to occupy married housing.
In 1983, the United States Supreme Court ruled that Bob Jones University could legally have its tax-exempt status revoked for engaging in the discriminatory practice of not allowing mixed-race dating.
"I think that the issue with [LGBT] rights is a little bit different [from race]. The evolution of the issue is moving at least as quickly as we have moved in the area of race and that this is a national dialogue that ought to begin about, should in fact benefits be given to educational institutions that do in fact discriminate," Lynn stated. "Even now, I would not want to be a person at a fundamentalist academy who is trying to defend the practice, that is taking a reasonable amount of government funds and refusing to allow a same-sex married couple to live in the married student housing. I think even now, that would be on the edge of the indefensible."
In June, over 70 Christian education leaders sent joint letters to congressional leaders asking them to institute legal protections to ensure that religious institutions don't lose tax-exempt statuses over same-sex marriage, which would be a lethal blow for a number of those institutions
Later in June, Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, and Rep. Raul Labrador, R-Idaho, introduced the First Amendment Defense Act, which would prohibit the government from imposing penalties against individuals, businesses and religious institutions that refuse to violate their religious beliefs to accommodate same-sex couples or same-sex weddings.
"When the government itself is retaliating against someone based on their religious beliefs, that is a problem and that is what we are trying to protect here," Lee said at a press gathering at his Capitol Hill office in June. "We expect that in part because the Obama administration's chief advocate, before the Supreme Court, acknowledged that it is going to be an issue, that is that you are going to have some religious institutions losing certain status, perhaps tax-exempt status, perhaps some other type of status and that's why we feel like we need this law. We need something in the United States code that protects Americans against that type of discrimination by government."
Maggie Garrett, legislative director for Americans United, said that the organization will work to oppose the First Amendment Defense Act.
"The reason that we oppose this legislation is because it would sanction government funded discrimination," Garrett stated. "So, it would allow the government to give money to organizations, for contracts or to perform grants, but allow them to discriminate against same-sex couples. Of course, we strongly oppose government funded discrimination and oppose that bill."
Although social conservative Christians and business owners are adamant that providing services or goods to same-sex weddings would violate their religious views, Lynn said his interpretation of the Bible calls on Christians to be inclusive, not exclusive.
"I read the same Bible as the Religious Right, yet where they see a manifesto for exclusion and bigotry, I see a command to love and include. Where they see division, I see community. Where they see rejection, I see acceptance," Lynn stated. "With Protect Thy Neighbor, we are putting the Religious Right on notice: Your politics of division, homophobia and exclusion will not stand. We are watching and we are reacting. We will meet you and, I suspect, beat you in Congress, in statehouses and in courtrooms."