How Southern states are now challenging gay marriage

Lawmakers in three states pushed ahead with bills to protect the right to refuse service to same-sex couples, claiming religious liberty is at stake. 

David Goldman/ AP
On Feb. 11, Georgia House Speaker David Ralston (R) speaks in favor of a bill stating that religious officials do not need to perform same-sex marriages. Georgia and a number of other states this week have moved legislation forward that protects businesses, religious leaders, and organizations who refuse to serve same-sex couples.

Four more states joined a broad conservative push against same-sex marriage this week, as several moved forward legislation that protects businesses, officials, and organizations who refuse to serve gay couples. In Kentucky, lawmakers pushed to create separate marriage licenses for gay and straight weddings. 

Citing religious liberty, lawmakers in Virginia, Georgia, and Mississippi approved bills that they say offers equal protection for same-sex marriage opponents and supporters alike. These are states where there is far less public support for the Supreme Court's June 2015 effective legalization of gay marriage than polls show nationwide. 

Although majorities of Americans support the right to gay marriage, Southern states, in particular, show a different story. In Mississippi, for example, where support for gay marriage is the lowest in the country, only 25 percent support it, and just 54 percent believe it should be illegal to discriminate against gay individuals, according to polls by the Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI). Overall, 53 percent of Americans support gay marriage, while 37 percent oppose it; 71 percent support laws against discriminating against gay or transgender people for housing or jobs.

That difference is playing out as Southern states respond to the Supreme Court's gay marriage decision – possibly leading to fresh tensions between state and federal discrimination laws.  

On Friday, Mississippi's House voted 80-39 to pass a bill protecting state officials, faith leaders, and religious organizations who act on their beliefs that marriage is between a man and a woman, that sex is only acceptable between husband and wife, and that gender is established at birth. The protections would include circuit clerks and judges, as well as employment decisions, such as firing an employee whose actions are considered out of line with a religious organization's views. The bill is now being held for further debate before going to the state Senate. 

Similar legislation passed in the Georgia Senate on Friday, despite businesses' concern that it could hurt the tourist industry. Under the Georgia bill, however, government employees could not refuse to perform their jobs, such as signing marriage licenses. The bill will now go to the state House of Representatives. 

Many advocates defend the laws as necessary to legally protect people whose religious beliefs oppose gay marriage, while still upholding its legality. 

"We are not picking sides," said state Sen. Greg Kirk, a Republican. "This bill does not favor one viewpoint over others, which is exactly how government should act with regard to religious beliefs." 

Gay marriage supporters, however, say that what such legislation favors is discrimination. 

"We don’t allow people to discriminate against . . . interracial marriages, interfaith marriages, disparate-age marriages. We can’t start this precedent where there’s this one type of relationship that people can discriminate against without any fear of punishment," James Parrish, the executive director of Equality Virginia, an LGBT advocacy organization in Richmond, told the Washington Post.

Virginia's House of Delegates passed yet another similar bill last week, including the provisions for those who oppose pre-marital sex or transgender customers, although Gov.Terry McAuliffe, a Democrat, has vowed to veto the law if it reaches his desk. Under the bill, organizations or individuals who refuse to serve gay, transgender, or unmarried couples would not risk losing state accreditation, tax benefits, or their jobs. Exceptions are made for hospitals, who cannot deny emergency treatment. 

In Kentucky, where county clerk Kim Davis' refusal to issue marriage licenses intensified national debate this past fall, state senators approved a bill to provide separate licenses for gay and straight couples. One would refer to the "bride" and "groom," after lawmakers pushed back against "first party" and "second party." It will now go to the state House of Representatives.

From state to state, conservative lawmakers claim their religious beliefs against gay marriage face discrimination, not gay couples themselves. 

"The activists who pursue same-sex marriage...are not satisfied with equality and they will not be satisfied until people of faith are driven out of this discourse, are made to cower, are made to be in fear of speaking their minds, of living up to their deeply held religious beliefs," Virginia House Delegate Todd Gilbert (R) said before Tuesday's vote. "They want us driven out."

Among Christians, however, views on gay marriage and discrimination are far from homogeneous. According to PRRI, majorities of Orthodox Christians, mainline white Protestants, and Catholics support gay marriage. Majorities of black and Hispanic Protestants, Mormons, and white evangelicals oppose it. 

Yet majorities of all Christian groups surveyed support non-discrimination laws to protect gay people, and majorities in all but two of those groups oppose letting private businesses refuse them service: 56 percent of white evangelicals, and 58 percent of Mormons.

That landscape is quickly changing, however: younger evangelicals are far more likely than their grandparents to support gay marriage, although a majority still support service refusals.

"The demographic trends are pointing in a direction decidedly against the conservative positions, yet the older-generation leadership of the party is still wedded to the former consensus," George Mason University's School of Policy, Government and International Affairs Dean Mark J. Rozell told the Washington Post. "The Republicans frankly haven’t figured it out yet."

This report includes material from the Associated Press.

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