The Religious and Gay Marriage Can Co-exist Within America's Shared Values

09/11/2015 11:34 am ET Updated Sep 11, 2016

Over the past several months, even preceding the recent Supreme Court ruling authorizing gay marriage, the issue of gay marriage vs. religious freedom has been in the news. Last week, "religious freedom" reared its head with Rowan County, Kentucky clerk Kim Davis's defiance of the Supreme Court's ruling, landing her rightfully in jail.

I say this because the issue of gay marriage has nothing to with personal religious freedom, defined as the ability to practice your religion and worship your God. Or, if you have no belief in religion or God, religious freedom and the constitutional right of Self-expression allow you not to believe or not to worship at all.

Within this definition, Mrs. Davis has the right to not believe in gay marriage, and certainly the right to have a loving and supportive male husband who believes exactly as she does. She has the right to worship in a church that doesn't believe in or provide a venue for gay marriage, and she can participate in a private prayer group that believes similarly.

If her religion prevents her from serving in the armed forces, participating on a jury, accepting a blood transfusion, or terminating life by disconnecting a ventilator, religious freedom will shield her from shunning, shame or incarceration, and the legal system will protect her religious rights. Only in America!

If she runs a business -- say a Chick-fil-A or Hobby Lobby store -- that chooses to be closed on Sunday, the Christian Sabbath, our laws will protect her, and many will, in fact, respect her. I would respect her for those convictions.

However, where her religious beliefs interfere with others' freedoms and dignity -- as protected and defined by our laws and courts -- that's where the American values of Freedom and Equality supersede individual religious rights. The right to worship and practice one's religion doesn't give someone the right to violate another's rights.

If it did, under the most expansive interpretation of the Bible, religion could be used to sanction slavery. Indeed, in the South both before and after the Civil War, it did.

By my way of thinking, religion is a wonderful refuge for faith, decency, goodness and holiness. I believe that, authentically practiced, religion makes good people better, more sensitive and kinder. Artificially practiced, religion can give people a crutch for meanness, enabling them to be holy on the Sabbath and hellish the rest of the week.

We all know people who are religious on Saturday or Sunday but mistreat employees and others in their off-holy-days. We also know people who are not religious at all who are extremely good, righteous and worthy.

Religion can also authorize and legitimize quiet intolerance and discrimination, whether in the sanctuary or in clubs and associations across America. In these clubs, members are so monolithic and like-minded that they often exclude others who are different. All faiths are guilty of harboring such clubs.

The values of Freedom and Equality -- as enforced by our laws -- are meant to protect others from the sometimes misguided self-righteousness or intentional disregard of the religious.

I am not intending to malign those who are religious. In fact, I'm religious.

Because I am religious, I chose to send my two children to a parochial school through the 8th grade. I wanted them to learn prayer, religious practice, and religious values, and I accepted that this was not possible in our public schools, nor should it be.

Because I'm religious, I choose to pray everyday, so that I am mindful to be good to others and true to my life purpose. Because I'm religious, I choose to abstain from work on the Sabbath and holidays. And because I'm religious, I tithe.

I practice my religion to the fullest within the protections of the freedoms of our country. But, where I differ with those who would deprive gay Americans of their personal and religious freedom - including the right of marriage - is that my belief or practice does not impinge on the rights of others.

Several years ago, my children came to me and challenged me to accept gay marriage. They knew that I had not, and they felt that I was a hypocrite. I looked at my religion; I re-read my Bible. Although I felt that I had respected gay friends, I had great difficulty accepting the notion that marriage was not necessarily only between a man and a woman.

Then I re-read my Constitution. I went back to my children and told them that - if I practiced the values of America, combined with the commandment to "love your neighbor as yourself" - I had to accept gay marriage. Otherwise, I would be embracing freedoms only for me and not for others who may be different than me.

I still practice my religion and am personally true to its values. But I also practice being American and am true to our collective "civil religion." I feel good, authentic and perfectly at peace doing both.

This balance between our religious and civic values, between citizens who are the self-declared righteous, openly agnostic or unwittingly insensitive, is what, I believe, makes America unique and great.

In this context, I'm proud to be religious. I'm proud to be American.

Muszynski is Founder of Purple America, a national initiative of Values-in-Action Foundation to re-focus the American conversation to a civil, productive and respectful dialogue around our shared values. To see America's shared values and get involved, go to www.PurpleAmerica.us. Project Love is a school-based character-development program of Values-in-Action Foundation. To see information about Project Love school programming, go to www.projectlove.org