*Originally posted at my Houston Chronicle Belief Blog – Sacred Duty
There was much fanfare and excitement over the passage of New York’s same-sex marriage bill last week. Supporters of the gay rights movement and homosexuals across the nation celebrated as the most populous state yet to pass legislation allowing for gay marriages took what they say is a major step in the journey towards national recognition of their rights. However, the legislation almost did not come to pass. As ABC News and other sources reported the vote hung in the balance as New York Republicans fought for protections for religious institutions. At stake were the rights of religious institutions who wanted the freedom to stick to their beliefs regarding homosexuality and not be forced to condone or assist marriages they do not support.
While such beliefs may not by indicative of wider trends in American society (see “Why Religious Conservatives Aren’t Winning the Same-Sex Marriage Debate”) they are to be protected like any other right. Why? Because the rights of religions and religious institutions are just as important as the rights of any other individual or organization.
The free practice of religion and the right to free speech are foundational principles in the United States. They often are the most pressing issues for religious institutions sometimes caught on both sides of the coin when it comes to these rights. While the rights of same-sex individuals were obviously in the forefront of this debate, the rights of religious institutions cannot be forgotten nor forsaken.
Another case in Houston, TX makes this point most poignant. The U.S. Department of Veterans’ Affairs and the director of the Houston National Cemetery are under fire from local Houston veterans associations for stripping individuals of their right to free speech, specifically in the form of religious prayers at funerals. Juan Lozano of the Houston Chronicle reported:
on at least four occasions in the last two months, VA officials told them that prayer and religious speech could no longer be included in burial rituals they take part in at the Houston cemetery unless families submit a specific prayer or message in writing to Arleen Ocasio, the cemetery’s director.
Those taking issue with Ocasio claim that she does not permit any use of the words “God” or “Jesus Christ” in these prayers. Furthermore, it is claimed that a group was forced to remove the words “God Bless” from condolence cards passed out at the service.
A lawsuit is being filed and the affair is garnering national attention as Texas 2nd District Representative Ted Poe wrote for Fox News calling for a correction of this injustice. In the piece Rep. Poe writes, “The government’s attack on the very freedoms that [the veterans] lived and died for is a blatant violation of the freedom of speech and free exercise of religion promised to all Americans in the Constitution.” He could not be more right.
Although religious institutions and their constituents may often be seen as close-minded, conservative and on the “wrong-side” of recent freedom/rights debates they are still American and thus are entitled to the same rights as everyone else. There is no reason to strip religious adherents or organizations (be they Christian, Hindu, Muslim, Jewish etc.) of their rights or have the government force them to downplay their beliefs as expressed in religious rites such as weddings and funerals. Therefore, while the nation celebrates July 4th this weekend and many laud a victory for the rights of same-sex couples in New York, we should all call for the protection of the rights of religious institutions and individuals here in Houston. No matter your belief, or lack thereof, you cannot deny that religious rights are just as important as any other fundamental American liberties.