Can New Jersey punish Methodists for marriage?

Posted: Sep 19, 2007 8:49 PM
Can New Jersey punish Methodists for marriage?

The headline news on the gay marriage issue is that on Tuesday, Maryland's supreme court joined the growing list of state high courts upholding marriage as the union of husband and wife.

The majority of the court held that sexual orientation is not a suspect class, that there is no scientific consensus that orientation is immutable, that marriage does not discriminate based on gender, that there is no fundamental right to same-sex marriage, that laws defining marriage as a union of husband and wife are substantially different from those banning interracial marriage, and that the historic link between marriage and procreation justifies the state's definition of marriage as a union of husband and wife.

Behind this slam-dunk is a far more ominous and less noticed headline, buried in the metro section of Tuesday's New York Times: "Group Loses Tax Break Over Gay Union Issue."

For the first time, a religious organization in New Jersey is being punished by the government because it refused to permit same-sex civil union ceremonies on its property.

Despite its historic nature, this officially sanctioned discrimination against a religious group did not require a special act of the legislature or ruling of the court to accomplish. A state bureaucrat, one Lisa Jackson (the state commissioner on environmental protection), quietly sent a letter informing the Ocean Grove Camp Meeting Association, a Methodist organization, that the pavilion it owns on the beach is no longer eligible for exemption from state real estate taxes. (The Ocean Grove Camp Meeting Association also remains the target of a state investigation into whether it has violated the state's anti-discrimination laws by refusing to permit same-sex ceremonies on its property.)

I'm not as surprised as I should be. More than a year ago, it was professor Robin Wilson of the Washington and Lee School of Law who first pointed out in a Becket Fund for Religious Liberty conference that depriving racist organizations of their tax exempt status required no special act of Congress (or any other elected official accountable to the public). Instead, it was a bureaucrat, the IRS commissioner, who ruled that racist organizations are acting contrary to public policy and, so, cannot be tax-exempt charities. It was Marc Stern, general counsel for the American Jewish Congress, who first pointed out to me in an interview for the Weekly Standard, that it is not just federal tax exemptions in play -- every major religious charity in the country depends on state real estate tax exemptions.

The goal of gay marriage activists from day one has been to treat sexual orientation in law and society in exactly the same way we treat race. What does this mean in practice? It means that people like you and me who think marriage is the union of husband and wife will be treated like bigots who oppose interracial marriages. Ideas have consequences. Pay attention to what people say. Usually they mean it.

"How can Adam and Steve's marriage hurt you?" I've been asked over and over again, as if gay marriage were primarily about expanding personal liberty. Many libertarians and conservatives, in particular, have been seduced by this false framing of the issue. Liberty arguments lead to values pluralism: Live and let live; let each of us do what we want.

Equality arguments are, by contrast, high-octane fuel for expansions of government power. In this case the government of New Jersey has officially endorsed the idea that treating same-sex couples any different from unions of husband and wife is immoral discrimination -- and those who do so must be disciplined for their bigotry.

At least the stakes are becoming clear.