NJ May Need to Protect Clergy’s Right to Refuse Same-Sex Union Ceremonies

In what many are calling evidence of a disturbing new necessity, New Jersey Attorney General Stuart Rabner announced last week that members of the clergy will not be forced to perform civil union ceremonies for same-sex couples. Rabner said the state's Law Against Discrimination would not apply to religious leaders.

"There is no statutory bar to a member of the clergy declining to solemnize civil unions in accordance with sincerely held religious beliefs, even though that religious figure regularly solemnizes marriages," Rabner said in a letter to state registrar Joseph Komosinski, the Asbury Park Press reported January 12.

The anti-discrimination law would, however, apply to any government official legally permitted to conduct marriage or civil union ceremonies, he said in an opinion issued in December. While government officials, such as mayors or judges, are not required to conduct marriage or civil union ceremonies, if they chose to do so they would not be allowed to refuse same-sex couples.

While Bogota Mayor Steve Lonegan, who has said he will not perform civil unions, said he was not surprised at the exemption of clergy, he pointed out that the decision essentially creates a "rights" hierarchy.

"I can't imagine how they'd have the audacity to go that far [forcing clergy to perform same-sex ceremonies]," Lonegan said. "I guess what they're saying is there are different rights for different people in different positions."

The law as it stands would require some officials to violate their religious beliefs, said Rick Malwitz, writing for the Home News Tribune Online.

"Who is being punished here? Certainly not same-sex couples," Malwitz wrote. "If their mayor will not officiate at a civil-union ceremony, the couple can look elsewhere. Surely they can find another public official, a sympathetic judge or a willing member of the clergy.

"But the way the law is written, some officials would have to violate their religious beliefs and yield to the beliefs of the fundamentalists. While activists on the religious right have often been accused of forcing their beliefs down the throats of the community — on matters such as abortion rights and embryonic stem-cell research — advocates for strict interpretation of New Jersey's civil union law are proving they can play the same game."

The Alliance Defense Fund, a legal coalition dedicated to defending religious freedom, is considering launching legal action on Lonegan's behalf. Jordan Lorence, senior counsel for the ADF, said, "The attorney general has taken a very extreme and hard-edged interpretation of the New Jersey laws against discrimination. And I'm not convinced the courts would agree with his absolutist interpretation of the state law."

The ADF will decide whether to file suit by February19, when the state's new civil-union law will take effect.

A bill was introduced in the Senate last week that would allow mayors to conduct marriages according to their personal religious beliefs, following Rabner's ruling on clergy.

"Clergy are licensed by the state, and so are mayors," Sen. Henry McNamara, who introduced the measure, said. "It doesn't say in the statute you have a different licensing, so why wouldn't you be treated the same way?"

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