On Monday, the United Church of Christ brought a federal lawsuit against North Carolina’s marriage laws, which were amended in 2012 to ban gay unions. What interest does the United Church of Christ have in toppling the state’s homophobic ban? Under North Carolina law, a minister who officiates a marriage ceremony between a couple with no valid marriage license is guilty of a Class A misdemeanor and can be thrown in jail for 45 days. And since gay marriage is illegal in North Carolina, that means any minister who dares celebrate a gay union in his church may face jail time.
I’m not certain why Ross Douthat, Ramesh Ponnuru, Mollie Hemingway, and other vociferous conservative defenders of religious liberty aren’t vocally outraged about this fact. Nor am I certain why, if religious freedom is truly one of the most cherished values of American conservatism, the religious right wasn’t incensed when Unitarian ministers in New York had to risk arrest while performing commitment ceremonies under a similar statute in 2004. Surely a vision of religious liberty that would allow a storeowner to turn away gays at the door would encompass the basic principle of allowing houses of worship to honor lifelong commitments they deem worthy of solemnization in the eyes of God.
Actually, there’s an obvious reasons why conservatives aren’t clamoring to endorse the UCC’s lawsuit: The battle cry of “religious liberty” is only valuable to the American right insofar as it protects the right's own values—like animus toward gay people or rejection of reproductive rights. Just as, for many conservatives, corporate freedom extends to bosses who deny birth control but not to companies that support progressive causes, religious freedom in the hands of the right is really a term of art, or perhaps a dog whistle. So long as a religion dictates that, say, you refuse to bake a wedding cake for a gay couple, your religious liberty gets a hearty cheer of approval from conservatives. But when your religion leads you to perform a commitment ceremony for a gay couple that is part of your congregation, the right’s howls for liberty fall deafeningly silent.
Anyone legitimately concerned about the rights of believers to practice their faith as they wish should be appalled by North Carolina’s marriage laws. The threat of a minister going to jail simply for celebrating a gay marriage is a real, and terrifying, affront to the very premise of “free exercise” of religion. Given how irrationally concerned conservatives are that ministers may soon be arrested in America for refusing to conduct gay weddings, I would hope they would be equally horrified by the specter of a minister being arrested for agreeing to perform one. But, of course, they won’t be. The right has settled on a stunningly specious new narrative of victimization and religious oppression; to observe that some Americans are facing religious oppression for their pro-gay views just doesn’t fit the storyline. Consistency and morality would command conservatives to enthusiastically join the United Church of Christ’s lawsuit. Hypocrisy will prevent them from saying a word.