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Religious Freedom Key To Debate On Gay Marriages

Gay Marriage

First Posted: 07/20/11 10:26 PM ET Updated: 09/19/11 06:12 AM ET

By Jack Jenkins
Religion News Service

WASHINGTON (RNS) Senators wrestled with issues of faith and religious freedom on Wednesday (July 20) as they debated a new bill that would allow the federal government to recognize same-sex marriages.

The Senate Judiciary Committee held hearings on the Respect for Marriage Act, which was sponsored by Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., and endorsed by the Obama administration.

If passed, the bill would repeal the 1996 Defense of Marriage Act, or DOMA, which defines marriage as a union between one man and one woman, and allows states not to recognize gay marriages performed in other states.

While much of the discussion concerned the legal implications of the proposed bill, witnesses and lawmakers frequently cited their faith as informing their position.

Thomas Minnery, senior vice president of Focus on the Family, said he opposed any repeal of DOMA because of his desire to "build healthy marriages that reflect God's design" so that heterosexual parents can "raise their children according to morals and values grounded in biblical principles."

By contrast, Sen. Christopher Coons, D-Del., also cited his faith as a motivating factor behind his support for DOMA's repeal.

"I am a person of faith. My family and I worship regularly. ... But I don't think that my faith, which informs my politics, empowers me to have a monopoly on the will of God," said Coons, a Presbyterian.

Advocates for DOMA's repeal also repeatedly mentioned the need to respect religious freedom, with Rep. Jerrold Nadler, D-N.Y., telling senators that "the Respect for Marriage Act has the highest conditions of religious freedom."

"Religious views on marriage unquestionably differ, with some religions opposing and others solemnizing marriages for lesbian and gay couples. But the Respect for Marriage Act allows this diversity to flourish ... without government interference," Nadler said.

Feinstein echoed Nadler, noting, "Nothing in this bill would obligate any person, religious organization, state, or locality to perform a marriage between two persons of the same sex."

Not everyone, however, invoked religion to make their point. Austin Nimocks, a lawyer for the conservative Alliance Defense Fund, testified in support of DOMA on the grounds that same-sex couples cannot procreate.

"As put by the famous philosopher, Bertrand Russell, a self-described atheist: 'But for children, there would be no need for any institution concerned with sex,"' Nimocks said.

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