Bill in state House would allow clergy to refuse to marry couples
By CAITLIN TAYLOR
Special to the Journal
LANSING — Some religious leaders are questioning the necessity of a House bill aimed at further protecting their First Amendment rights.
The bill, sponsored by state Rep. Jeffrey Noble, R-Plymouth, would allow ministers, clerics and other religious practitioners to refuse to marry couples who violate the religious beliefs of the clergy. Noble, who is a minister, declined to be interviewed.
Co-sponsor state Rep. Tom Barrett, R-Potterville, said he feels that the First Amendment already provides these protections to religious leaders, but some legislators want statutory protections to go beyond religious freedom.
“I feel that religious institutions have come under assault in the past,” Barrett said. “We didn’t want to see a situation take place where people were forced to perform wedding ceremonies that would not meet the qualifications of their religious faith.”
Barrett said the legislation is not a gay rights issue.
In recent years, however, most of the controversy around marriage rights has involved lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender couples.
Since the U.S. Supreme Court ruled same-sex marriage legal nationwide in 2015, a Kentucky county clerk refused to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples because she said it violated her religious freedom.
In another instance, owners of an Oregon bakery refused to make a wedding cake for a lesbian couple for the same reason.
Barrett said the new bill is a preemptive step to prevent similar circumstances from occurring in Michigan. Legislators are most concerned about protecting religious leaders, he said, which is why the legislation has a narrow focus and does not include public officials or bakers.
According to Devin Schindler, a Western Michigan University Cooley Law School professor and auxiliary dean, a proposal like this often creates conflict.
“There’s a tension in the Constitution between individuals’ First Amendment right to freely express their religion versus government’s often-compelling interest in preventing discrimination,” Schindler said. “When a statute reflects what the Constitution already provides, it is fair to ask why the statute is necessary.”
Rev. Rich Saunders, the associate and youth pastor for Three Rivers Church of the Nazarene, said he has never had to refuse a service, but would be prepared to do so — with or without the proposed law.
“If there was someone that came to me and wanted to get married and it was against biblical standards, I wouldn’t be rude in refusing,” Saunders said. “I would explain to them what I believe and why I believe it and go from there.”
If an LGBT couple asked Saunders to marry them, for example, he said he would have to turn them away. He said he is bound by his church’s belief that, biblically, marriage is only between a man and a woman.
“The law wouldn’t affect me at all,” Saunders said. “I feel like spiritually speaking, I would trust that if I’m doing it with the right heart and I refuse someone, I would trust that God would take care of it.”
Rabbi Jeremy Szczepanski of the Congregation of Moses in Kalamazoo said his congregation recognizes full equality for its members, regardless of their sexual orientation. But he said he still believes religious leaders should be able to refuse couples.
“I do believe that there are religious officials who are not comfortable doing same-sex marriage, and while I disagree, that is their right,” Szczepanski said. “My colleagues who would not do so would be discriminating, but it is not my place to dictate their beliefs.”
While in support of the bill’s sentiment, Szczepanski said legislation should not be based on religious beliefs. He said the bill interferes with the separation of church and state.
Szczepanski’s congregation is listed among other affirming religious institutions by OutFront Kalamazoo’s Faith Alliance.
OutFront is an LGBT resource center serving the greater Kalamazoo area. Its program, Faith Alliance, is made up of religious leaders who believe that the equality of people of all sexual orientations and gender identities is part of their service.
Jay Maddock, the center’s executive director, said the proposed legislation disguises bigotry as religious freedom and impedes the religious freedoms of LGBT people.
“I think that for the LGBT community, when marriage equality was passed, for the first time in many of their lives, they felt like full citizens and felt like they could live their full lives,” Maddock said. “This bill could undermine the humanity of LGBT people.”
The bill was referred to the House Judiciary Committee. Committee Chair Rep. Jim Runestad, R-White Lake, could not be reached for comment.