Christians should have some concerns about Friday's U.S. Supreme Court decision redefining marriage to include same-sex couples. Some reactions, however, have been overblown. Here is what Christians should, and should not, be concerned about.
First the bad news.
(For simplicity, "Christian" in this article will refer to conservative Christians, or Christians who maintain a biblical understanding of sex and marriage. As a general rule, Christians who follow the culture on those matters have fewer concerns about how the culture will treat them.)
Liberals and Democrats are increasingly demonstrating an unwillingness to support the religious freedom of those opposed to gay marriage. The Court's gay marriage ruling on Friday will likely exacerbate that trend.
In 2013, the U.S. Senate, under control of the Democrats and with the support of "gay rights" groups, passed the Employment Non-Discrimination Act with a religious exemption. In July 2014, after the Supreme Court ruled that the owners of Hobby Lobby have an exemption, under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, from a mandate to cover abortifacients, the American Civil Liberties Union and several (but not all) LGBT activist groups said they no longer supported ENDA due to the religious exemption.
Erosion of support for the religious freedom of gay marriage dissenters can also be seen in state-level politics. When some states, such as Arizona and Indiana, worked to pass their own RFRA laws, in response to wedding vendors being punished for refusing to serve gay weddings, liberals, Democrats, and even some Republicans, sharply opposed those laws while accusing supporters of bigotry.
The federal RFRA was passed in the 1990s with the support of both liberals and conservatives, Democrats and Republicans, in reaction to native Americans being punished for using peyote as part of a religious ritual. Now that RFRA could be used to protect the religious freedom of gay marriage dissenters, some of those liberals and Democrats no longer support it.
The ACLU helped get RFRA passed. But on Thursday, the day before the Supreme Court's gay marriage ruling, the ACLU announced it no longer supported the law. In announcing the decision in an op-ed for The Washington Post, ACLU Deputy Legal Director Louise Melling complained about the different ways RFRA is now being used to protect the religious freedom of Christians, rather than native Americans.
One of the most cited religious freedom concerns has been whether Christian colleges could lose their tax exemption for campus policies consistent with a biblical view of sex and marriage. The issue came up during the Supreme Court's oral arguments for the gay marriage decision. When asked if Christian colleges could lose their tax exemption, the Obama administration's solicitor general, Donald Verrilli, admitted it is "certainly going to be an issue, I don't deny that."
That line has likely become the most quoted from the oral arguments. The context of his answer was a previous Supreme Court decision which denied tax-exempt status to Bob Jones University due to its ban on interracial dating. If opposition to gay marriage is akin to racism, Verrilli was saying, then courts could conceivably deny tax-exempt status to colleges opposed to gay marriage.
At a minimum, some Christian colleges will likely face lawsuits. Less clear is which side will win. (See below for the good news.)
Accreditation may also become an issue. Gordon College is currently undergoing a one-year review, until October, by its accreditation agency because of its stance on homosexuality. The issue arose after Gordon's president, Michael Lindsay, signed onto a letter to President Barack Obama asking him to maintain a religious exemption in an ENDA-like order for government contractors. (Gordon is not itself a government contractor.)
This year, Gordon decided it could continue to uphold biblical standards and the accreditation agency's president claimed in an interview that Gordon's accreditation is not in danger. Yet, the final outcome is still unknown.
What is happening to Gordon College demonstrates how gay activists may try to get Christian colleges to change their policies without government action. Gordon College was not due for another accreditation review until 2022. Forcing colleges to undergo a review of their policies regarding homosexuality, accreditation agencies may be able to extract some concessions from colleges, even if the threat of losing accreditation is never explicit.
Reviewing accreditation will likely produce other chilling effects, even if Christian colleges do not ultimately lose their accreditation. In a November interview, for instance, Lindsay said if he had it to do over again, he would not have signed the letter. Will other Christian college presidents now remain silent on religious freedom issues in order to avoid Gordon's current trials?
Christian groups that receive government grants to provide social services will also likely face additional scrutiny. Even before the Supreme Court's gay marriage ruling there have been attempts in Congress to weaken religious freedom protections in certain government programs. Now that the Supreme Court has declared gay marriage a fundamental right, religious exemptions for organizations who maintain the traditional definition of marriage will be more difficult (but not impossible) to maintain.
Christians should also be concerned about what happens outside of government. In some places, Christians could be fired or not hired, and Christian business owners could face retribution from activists.
This has already happened, for instance, with former Mozilla CEO Brendan Eich and former Atlanta Fire Chief Kelvin Cochran. And during the Indiana RFRA debate, Memories Pizza had to temporarily shut down after simply stating their position on marriage to a reporter.
In order to protect their livelihood, some Christians will no doubt feel the need to go into the closet as gays come out.
As Justice Samuel Alito explained in his dissent, "Perhaps recognizing how its reasoning may be used, the majority attempts, toward the end of its opinion, to reassure those who oppose same-sex marriage that their rights of conscience will be protected. We will soon see whether this proves to be true. I assume that those who cling to old beliefs will be able to whisper their thoughts in the recesses of their homes, but if they repeat those views in public, they will risk being labeled as bigots and treated as such by governments, employers, and schools."
And now the good news.
Some of the reactions from Christian leaders and politicians have been overblown. Churches will not be required to host gay weddings and pastors will not be required to conduct gay wedding ceremonies. (There are a few simple steps churches can take to provide greater security for their religious freedom.)
There have been at least two op-ed's since the Court's gay marriage decision arguing for getting rid of the tax exemption for churches, here and here, but those opinion writers are on the fringe. There is neither the political will nor opportunity to make that happen.
Americans will continue to benefit from the strong protections for freedom of religion, speech and political action (assembly) in the First Amendment. Plus, while the Hobby Lobby decision was narrow (5-4), several of the U.S. Supreme Court's recent religious freedom decisions have been 9-0 in favor of religious freedom.
While there are some legitimate concerns for which Christians should be prepared, Christians should also be on the lookout for over-the-top fear mongering used for fundraising or political support.