An outbreak of common sense has struck parts of the South Dakota legislature.
Last week, the state Senate’s Judiciary Committee voted 4-3 to reject a completely unnecessary bill that would have made it clear that clergy can’t be forced to perform wedding ceremonies that violate their right of conscience.
The bill was introduced by Sen. Ernie Otten, a Republican from the town of Tea. (Yes, that’s the actual name of the town.) Otten seemed concerned that someday in the future same-sex marriage might come to South Dakota, and clergy would be forced to marry gay couples – and perhaps even be sued if they refuse.
The fact that this hasn’t happened in any state where same-sex marriage is legal failed to deter Otten.
“This bill does not force or impose an agenda on anyone,” Otten said. “What the bill does, however, is protect South Dakota from anyone trying to impose his or her view on people by using legal or financial threats.”
Well, the bill would have done a little more than that. It would have junked up the state’s legal code with an unnecessary measure. As Americans United has pointed out several times, the First Amendment already protects members of clergy from being compelled to officiate at marriage ceremonies.
Why can’t a same-sex couple demand a church wedding? For the same reason that a Protestant couple can’t just walk into a Roman Catholic church and demand that the priest marry them. Members of the clergy have an absolute right to determine the parameters for the sacraments they offer. If a couple doesn’t meet those criteria, the pastor is free to show them the door.
This concept is deeply embedded in the religious liberty provision of the First Amendment. It applies to other church sacraments as well. You can’t force a church to baptize your children or host your uncle’s funeral. Anyone who tried to sue a church to force it do these things would lose in court – badly.
Sensible members of the clergy know this. Karl Kroger, a United Methodist minister, testified against the bill, telling the committee, “I’m here primarily to give one of the messages that was predominantly given to people by the angels, and that is: ‘Do not be afraid,’” Kroger said.
Religious Right groups have been spreading wild tales about clergy being forced to officiate at same-sex marriages. It’s nothing but fear-mongering. It’s a desperation ploy by fundamentalist zealots who simply can’t accept that the cultural tide has turned against them.
Polls show that Americans are becoming more supportive of same-sex marriage. Overwhelming majorities of young people say they support the idea. It’s a major cultural shift.
But it doesn’t mean that members of the clergy will lose their basic rights and freedoms. Those rights are inviolable and depend on the outcome of no poll.
In short, if same-sex marriage does come to South Dakota someday, here is what will happen: Some clergy will announce that they are happy to preside at same-sex ceremonies. Others will say they won’t.
As long as we have a First Amendment, that choice will remain in their hands – where it has always belonged.