Liberty Counsel, NOM Fearmonger Over Hawaii Civil Unions Lawsuit
January 06, 2012 5:23 pm ET by Carlos Maza
Late last Friday, U.S. District Judge J. Michael Seabright denied a lawsuit by two Christian churches in Hawaii to temporarily halt the state’s civil union law. The churches – the Emmanuel Temple and the Lighthouse Outreach Center Assembly of God – claimed that the new law would undermine religious liberty by forcing religious organizations to perform civil union ceremonies on their property.
Anti-gay groups have been eagerly promoting the story in order to advance the myth that marriage equality somehow poses a threat to religious freedom.
Matt Barber of the anti-gay Liberty Counsel was quick to condemn Seabright’s decision, claiming that it would have a “chilling effect on the free exercise of religion.” He also claimed the dispute was further evidence that “homosexual pressure groups” want to force religious institutions to affirm gay conduct:
“It is my belief that this is by design,” the attorney revealed. “Homosexual pressure groups and individual activists are not happy with mere ‘tolerance’ for their lifestyle choices and behaviors. They demand that all of society fully affirm homosexual conduct under penalty of law. Religious faith traditions that recognize homosexual behavior as sin are not exempted from these demands.”
The National Organization for Marriage (NOM) touted the story on its blog, writing “Federal district judge forces Hawaii churches to accommodate same-sex civil unions.”
As expected, both groups left out crucial details about the Hawaii lawsuit:
1. Plaintiffs Had No Standing. Judge Seabright’s actual decision had nothing to do with whether churches are required to host civil union ceremonies. According to the text of the decision, Seabright denied the lawsuit because – since neither church had actually been asked to host a civil union ceremony – neither plaintiff had standing to file a suit against the state over the civil union law.
2. Non-Discrimination, Not Civil Unions. In reality, the plaintiffs in the lawsuit were actually concerned with Hawaii’s non-discrimination law, which existed years before the state legalized civil unions. That law already prohibits churches from discriminating against people (and couples) on the basis of sexual orientation when offering public accommodations. According to the text of the decision, the plaintiffs were concerned that the civil union law did not “specifically exempt religious organizations” from that statute. But even without the civil unions bill, churches in Hawaii are already prohibited from discriminating against gays and lesbians when offering their property for public use.
3. Churches Aren’t Required To Host Any Civil Union Ceremonies. Contrary to NOM’s headline, churches in Hawaii are not required to perform any civil union ceremonies on their property. If a church does decide to make its facilities available for civil unions between men and women, however, it cannot choose to discriminate against same-sex couples on the basis of sexual orientation. According the Hawaii Civil Rights Commission:
If a religious institution offers the use of facilities to general public for a fee (e.g., grounds, halls, catering services) for marriages and other celebrations, or owns, operates, or controls a commercial enterprise that rents out accommodations or facilities or sells goods or services, it cannot discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation... For the operator of a place of public accommodation, there is no exception for discrimination based on sincerely held religious belief.
Barber and NOM’s gross mischaracterizations of the Hawaii lawsuit shouldn’t come as a surprise; anti-gay groups have never spent too much time worrying about the unpleasant particularities that might contradict or undermine their “gays versus God” horror stories.
As they say, the devil is in the details.