Gay-marriage debate takes new twist in Oregon: religious exemption

Sun Feb 2, 2014 7:16am EST

(Reuters) - Oregon voters will likely face two questions about gay marriage when they go to the ballot this year: whether to become the 18th state to let same-sex couples wed, and whether the state should be the first to allow florists, cake makers and others to refuse to participate in these weddings on religious grounds.

The ballot initiatives set up what some activists have said is the next frontier in the marriage debate - as more states move to extend marriage rights to same-sex couples, those who object on religious grounds want a legal right to opt out.

"This is not a sideshow issue," said James Esseks of the American Civil Liberties Union, referring to the Oregon ballot initiative and the coming debate over religious exemption. "This is going to be the issue that we fight about for the next ten years, at least, in the (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender) rights movement."

In Oregon and 20 other states, it is illegal to discriminate against people because of their sexual orientation. The Oregon initiative, which is still awaiting formal approval and could face legal challenges, would create an exemption to that protection.

Several states are considering similar legislation. In South Dakota, a bill was introduced this month that would allow businesses to refuse same-sex wedding-related services.

Teresa Harke, whose group Friends of Religious Freedom proposed Oregon's religious exemption referendum, said that as the marriage debate continues, guarantees are needed to ensure those on both sides of the issue are treated fairly.

"We wanted to make sure that, no matter which way marriage is defined in Oregon, that folks who hold a view based on their faith that marriage is between one man and one woman are not going to be discriminated against or be silenced for declining to participate in same-sex weddings," she said.

Oregon pollster Tim Hibbitts said he expected a close vote on the marriage referendum but had not yet polled the religious exemption question.

'RIGHT OF CONSCIENCE'

Oregon's ballot initiative was inspired by an incident last year when Sweet Cakes by Melissa, a bakery in the Portland suburb of Gresham, refused to bake a wedding cake for a lesbian couple because of the owners' objections to same-sex marriage.

The couple, Rachel Cryer and Laurel Bowman, filed a complaint and, in January, labor investigators ruled the bakery had violated Oregon's nondiscrimination law. Sweet Cakes, which was inundated with angry emails and phone calls, lost a significant amount of business and was forced to relocate.

Cryer and Bowman declined to be interviewed, as did Sweet Cakes' owners, Aaron and Melissa Klein.

"I think it just made everybody realize that there may not be the right protections in place," said Harke.

Similar cases have unfolded across the country. A florist in Washington state, a Colorado bakery and a New Jersey event space have all sited religious objections in refusing to provide service to same-sex wedding and partnership ceremonies.

Last August, New Mexico's highest court ruled an event photographer's refusal on religious grounds to shoot a same-sex couple's commitment ceremony amounted to illegal discrimination. The court likened Elane Photography's refusal to a company declining to photograph an interracial wedding.

"They want a special privilege and a special license to discriminate against gay people in business," said Esseks. He called religious exemptions a "Plan B" strategy to "carve out a space where gay people's equality does not affect the way these other folks live their daily lives."

But Jordan Lorence, a lawyer with the conservative Alliance Defending Freedom, who represents Elane Photography, said the First Amendment protects the right of people not to endorse messages with which they disagree.

"The right of conscience protects all Americans," he said.

(Reporting by Edith Honan in New York; editing by Dina Kyriakidou and Matthew Lewis)

FILED UNDER:
We welcome comments that advance the story through relevant opinion, anecdotes, links and data. If you see a comment that you believe is irrelevant or inappropriate, you can flag it to our editors by using the report abuse links. Views expressed in the comments do not represent those of Reuters. For more information on our comment policy, see http://blogs.reuters.com/fulldisclosure/2010/09/27/toward-a-more-thoughtful-conversation-on-stories/
Comments (50)
ldfrmc wrote:
Exemption? A business exemption for the owner of a bakery, florist shop, or photography studio because he says it is really a church?!

Will he also ask for tax-exempt status?

When they call it a “religion,” anything goes.

Yep, Big2Tex, evil marches on. “God” licensed makes everything tax exempt.

Feb 02, 2014 8:46am EST  --  Report as abuse
westburke wrote:
Suddenly cake baking, photography, and selling flowers are “religious activities”. Let’s take this a bit further. Should a cab driver have the right to refuse to drive you to a gay wedding? Should a dressmaker have the right to refuse to make dresses for lesbians who are getting married? Should Target have the right to refuse to sell you khaki pants if you’re wearing them to your job as an equal rights lobbyist?

Now, should a gay cab driver have the right to refuse to drive you to a Catholic exorcism like the one performed by that “bishop” in Illinois? Should a gay barber be allowed to refuse to cut the hair of a Catholic priest for preaching against gay marriage?

Should a waiter have the right to refuse servie to the same bishops, priests, “christian” cake bakers etc?

Or should everyone have the right to thumb their nose at anyone for ‘religious’ reasons in the marketplace of goods and services?

If that is the case, then what kind of society is this? Do you want a return to the days when pastors stood outside of movie theaters to chase away their congregants if there was any risque behavior in the movie that was showing? Do you want every ‘church lady’ busybody to give you guff when you go to buy donuts or shampoo, just because you do something, anything really that she has ‘objections’ to?

IF you don’t want that for yourself, why is it OK to expect gay people to tolerate it?

Feb 02, 2014 9:32am EST  --  Report as abuse
david0296 wrote:
I had no idea that putting frosting on a cake was a religious sacrament. Oh right. It’s not. Does the Bible even mention wedding cakes? I’m fairly certain it doesn’t say anything about photographers.

If these religious zealots really want to be able to use their CHOSEN beliefs to discriminate, they are obligated to use those same beliefs against straight ‘sinners’ as well. Why aren’t these bakers screening opposite-sex couples to find out if they’ve had premarital sex, or have been divorced before, or have cheated on each other? Why don’t they care if their straight customers are sinners in the eyes of God? It’s almost as if the private lives of their straight customers isn’t any of their business. Weird, huh?

Feb 02, 2014 11:04am EST  --  Report as abuse
This discussion is now closed. We welcome comments on our articles for a limited period after their publication.