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Faith leaders: Religious freedom fight over same-sex marriage is not over

Protestors display signs after a meeting of the House Committee on Judiciary at the Arkansas state Capitol in Little Rock, Ark., Monday, March 30, 2015. The committee advanced an amended version of a bill that critics say would sanction discrimination against LGBT individuals. Danny Johnston, AP

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Religious liberty was once an issue that consistently united groups across the political and theological spectrum. But religious conservatives came to adopt religious freedom as a call to arms, as they found themselves more and more on the losing side of the culture wars.

A decade ago, the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, a public interest law firm in Washington, convened legal scholars from across the ideological divide on gay marriage to examine potential areas where religious freedom and gay rights might clash.

First Amendment protections for worship are secure. But complications arise when faith-affiliated organizations, such as charities, hospitals and schools, try to maintain their religious identity even as large employers of people from all faiths and providers of services to the public.

The 2005 Becket meeting generated a book, “Same-Sex Marriage and Religious Liberty: Emerging Conflicts,” and a subsequent policy paper that became influential among church-state experts and religious leaders closely watching the issue.

Four years later, a coalition of evangelical, Roman Catholic and Orthodox Christian leaders, citing the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” unveiled the “Manhattan Declaration: The Call of Christian Conscience.” It pledged civil disobedience to government laws they said would compel them to violate their views.

By 2011, the Catholic bishops’ conference had formed its own religious liberty committee and started organizing rallies and prayer services around the issue. The same year, the 1st Amendment Partnership was formed to work with state lawmakers.

“I think it’s fair to say the faith groups saw storm clouds on the horizon,” said the partnership’s Schultz.

The movement had its greatest victory to date last year, when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled the Hobby Lobby arts and crafts chain and other closely held businesses with religious objections could opt out of providing the contraceptive coverage required by the Affordable Care Act.

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