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Checking the Church State Council’s Facts on Prop. 8 Issues

There are fair questions to be debated about the future social impact of same-sex marriage.

But the Pacific Union’s Church State Council (CSC) – via Alan Reinach – lists several scary cases and employs threatening language in the October issue of the Pacific Union Recorder, writing, “same sex marriage threatens the survival of religious institutions that refuse to compromise their beliefs.” Elsewhere Reinach’s written: “This legal imbalance devalues liberty of conscience and religion, and allows gay rights to become a weapon to attack the church.” However, a review of the facts in each case that he has repeatedly cited reveals that same-sex marriage does not threaten the right of Adventist churches and other institutions to operate according to own doctrinal understanding of marriage.

In fact, many conservative religious legal scholars recognize that “The California Supreme Court ruling on gay marriage cannot have any federal tax consequences, and the Court so noted explicitly in its decision.  The Supreme Court also noted that its ruling would not require any priest, rabbi or minister to perform  gay marriages, which should be self‐evident because of the First Amendment’s guarantee of freedom of religion.”  Nonetheless, the CSC has listed five cases, introducing the arguments crafted by the Religious Right’s Alliance Defense Fund (which has widely distributed a pamphlet outlining vastly overblown “consequences” if Prop 8 fails to pass) into the Adventist context, to assert that we should fear this “weapon” of same-sex marriage. But a close look at the facts of each case tells a very different story and raises some serious questions about about the CSC’s position.

The CSC states: “In New York, Yeshiva University, an Orthodox Jewish school, was required to open up its married student housing facilities to same sex couples.”

  • Here, the CSC doesn’t tell the whole story. In fact, the case was concerning Albert Einstein College of Medicine which is almost an entirely separate institution from Yeshiva University. While Yeshiva University has a connection to the Bronx Orthodox community as anyone can see from visiting its website (where there is no mention of religious affiliation), calling it an Orthodox Jewish School is highly misleading about the nature of this very cosmopolitan world class medical center. In fact, the school has been chartered as nonsectarian since 1969. It is clear that the medical institution doesn’t uphold many orthodox beliefs, thus it could not argue that they were suddenly doing so in this one case. Adventist institutions (and other religious schools), which consistently apply their beliefs, would not be impacted by this case.

The CSC states: “Ocean Grove Camp Meeting Association, a Methodist facility in New Jersey, has lost a discrimination case filed by a same sex couple that was denied permission to use the chapel for a civil union ceremony. It is on appeal. In a related case, the Association has been stripped of its exemption from real property taxes.”

  • This widely-cited case is hardly as cut and dry as presented. Upon examination, there is little reason to worry (and, since same-sex marriage is not legal in New Jersey, Prop 8’s passage or failure would have little impact on California, even if there were reason to worry). Here’s a closer look. Rev. Scott Hoffman, who runs the campmeeting association, says that the association denied a same-sex couple use of its space on religious principles. “The principle was a strongly held religious belief that a marriage is between a man and a woman,” Hoffman said. (It is interesting that the CSC refers to this case while at the same time arguing that their support for Prop. 8 is not religiously based.) Furthermore, at issue in this case is an open-air pavilion on a boardwalk, not a church or chapel. The couple involved decided to have their civil union conducted elsewhere.

    The whole town (which is only one-square mile) is owned by the Association, and, while many gay couples have been allowed to live in the town by the Association, the boardwalk pavilion was suddenly declared off limits to them. Furthermore, the property tax exemption (in place only since 1989) was part of the state of New Jersey’s environmental incentives. And, very different from what the CSC printed, only the taxes ($20,000) exempted for the pavilion were not granted by the state, while the Association continues to receive exemptions for the boardwalk and beach. “The administrator of the Camp Meeting Association, Scott Hoffman, said in a written statement that ‘the Camp Meeting is reviewing the letter. However, it is worth noting that over 99 percent of the Camp Meeting’s land was recertified as tax-exempt.'”

    This careful distinction is unfortunately not reflected in the CSC’s characterization of the case. The New York Times reports: “Every three years since 1989, the association has applied for, and received, tax exemptions for its boardwalk, beach and the pavilion under the Green Acres Program, designed to encourage the use of privately owned lands for public recreation and conservation. This is the first time any part of its application has been turned down.” So, a pavilion in a town that had previously been used by all members of the public was suddenly denied access to certain people. And, the property tax exemption was being given by the state to encourage public use of private lands, so it is reasonable that part of this exemption might be in jeopardy if all members of the public aren’t allowed access. 

Unless there are Adventist pavilions that are participating in a special conservation program to promote public use of privately owned land in California, this clearly doesn’t apply as widely as the CSC implies. The reality is that the overwhelming majority of gay Americans actually honor the right of churches (many of whom are members) to decide who can use their buildings. No same-sex couple is going to force a pastor to marry them (nor could they). The First Amendment’s Religion Clause also prevents state anti-discrimination laws based on moral behavior from applying. This fact was upheld in exactly one of the cases that Alan Reinach cites. Even now, churches have full freedom to decide who can use their facilities (as anyone who has looked very far for a wedding site will likely remember).

The CSC states: “In Berkeley and San Diego, scouting groups have been denied the use of free public facilities they historically enjoyed, for refusing to agree to permit gay men to serve as scout leaders.”

  • That the CSC uses this private, non-religious organization in the context of a discussion over the right of the Seventh-day Adventist Church to determine its own rules for behavior reveals that the CSC is not distinguishing between Religious freedom for institutions and has moved more broadly into the more controversial realm of the rights of cities to protect their own rules. Religious organizations receive special protections under the Constitution that are not given to just any private organization.

The CSC states: “California Lutheran High School is being sued for discrimination for expelling two lesbian students. The lawsuit seeks to compel the school to violate its religious beliefs regarding sexual morality, by forcing it to change its policies and practices, or close down.”

  • In fact, on January 2008 a California judge threw out this case precisely because Christian institutions “can set standards for behavior for their students, and impose penalties if they are not met.”  Presenting this case without giving the whole story is unfortunate and misleading.

The CSC states: “Catholic Charities in Massachusetts was forced to close down its adoption agencies for its refusal to place children with same-sex couples. The city of Boston and its children lost the services that accounted for some 75 per cent of all adoptions because it refused to accommodate Catholic Charities’ religious convictions and practices.”

  • Doing some research of his own, Tim Mitchell, Senior Pastor of the Pacific Union College Church writes:

    The author of the [CSC] article was not fully forthcoming about Boston Catholic Charities (BCC). It is far more complicated a story than poor little catholic do-gooders who get shut down by godless government thugs. There are at least a few additional factors to consider:

    First, Boston Catholic Charities did process adoptions to at least thirteen homosexual couples until the Vatican shut that down.

    Second, when the Boston Office of Catholic Charities asked the Commonwealth of Massachusetts for an exemption from state policy, eight members of the BCC board resigned in protest because the board had overwhelmingly voted to continue placing children with same sex couples against the wishes of the Vatican.

    Third, United Way, one of the major contributors to BCC, was looking into cutting off their funding as well.

    And here’s the clincher: According to Catholic World News (3/10/2006), “Boston Catholic Charities has an annual budget of over $40 million, with most of the money coming from government programs.”

    Thus, they counted the cost. It was far better to shut down the adoption program than jeopardize the $40 million for other programs.

    CSC must know this, but it apparently didn’t want the faithful to know. The issue in Boston was not that BCC was being forced to adopt children out to gay households. It is that religious organizations cannot accept government money then circumvent the civil law. I am dumbfounded that our religious liberty spokespersons would take up the cause against the government who is upholding the establishment clause!

    Mitch Tyner, former Associate Director of the General Conference’s Religious Liberty Department and Associate General Counsel for the Seventh-day Adventist Church, with over twenty years dealing with church/state issues, calls the CSC’s arguments “hype.” This seems like strong language; but after looking up the cases the the CSC cites, it becomes increasingly clear that it presents each case in the scariest possible light, mischaracterizing facts, and even proffering cases in which the state protected religious institutions. The CSC repeatedly buys into an activist style of argumentation that treats the fact that someone brings a case (not the final ruling) as the threat. (As we know, almost anyone can file a case, but that means little until courts actually make a ruling.) A full examination of the facts and cases show that, over and over, the court respects the church’s religious liberty.

    After reviewing the facts, it appears that the CSC has bought into the scare tactics of the political world and has not been forthcoming about the actual details in each case. It’s not clear that Mr. Reinach checked the facts in these cases before passing them onto his contituency.  In pushing this non-traditional Adventist agenda, despite a Sep. 3 vote of neutrality by our Union leadership and by continuing to use Union resources and NARLA’s members emails, our CSC is sliding down a course of compromising the historic Adventist tradition of religious liberty over what looks to be a losing political stunt. It appears that it is doing so by abandoning our traditional separation of church and state partners on this issue and siding with groups that have a history of hyping religious issues for electoral gain. This appears to be a miscarriage of justice, not to mention member donations. [Voice your concern over this–sign the Adventists Against Prop 8 petition.] Furthermore, the CSC has not served to completely inform its constituency on this issue–repeatedly hyping a threat to Adventist leaders and laity–while ignoring the contradictory legal facts in each case.

    Of course, no one questions motives here, but the facts in each case leads to more questions that the CSC might want to address. Dialogue is welcome as we all work together and endeavor to make the best decision in relationship with God and as members of both church and state communities.

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