By David Roach, chief national correspondent for Baptist Press
WASHINGTON — Southern Baptist seminary leaders are among those expressing concern at the U.S. solicitor general’s admission that nationwide legalization of gay marriage could lead to the removal of tax-exempt status from religious institutions that stand for traditional marriage.
Also expressing concern are the National Religious Broadcasters and the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission.
Todd Linn, chairman of Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary’s board of trustees, told Baptist Press the “prospect of legalizing gay marriage across the nation raises a host of questions and concerns for religious institutions and conservative evangelical seminaries such as SEBTS.”
The concerns of Linn and others stem from an exchange at the U.S. Supreme Court April 28 between Associate Justice Samuel Alito and Solicitor General Donald Verrilli during oral arguments for the case which could result in nationwide legalization of same-sex marriage.
In response to the federal government’s argument that gay marriage should be declared a constitutional right, Alito asked Verrilli about institutions that refuse to permit gay marriage, citing a 1983 decision in which the Supreme Court upheld the Internal Revenue Service’s revocation of a tax exemption for Bob Jones University, a fundamentalist Christian school in Greenville, S.C.
The court “held that a college was not entitled to tax-exempt status if it opposed interracial marriage or interracial dating,” Alito said. “So would the same apply to a university or a college if it opposed same-sex marriage?”
Verrilli responded, “You know, I — I don’t think I can answer that question without knowing more specifics, but it’s certainly going to be an issue. I — I don’t deny that. I don’t deny that, Justice Alito. It is — it is going to be an issue.”
Verrilli, Linn said in written comments to BP, “opened the door to a number of other possible concerns. One can only imagine how legalizing same-sex marriage might also affect religious freedoms relating to admissions or hiring and firing.
“While many aspects of this issue remain unclear at the present, the seminary will be closely following all court cases and legislation that may impact the institution,” said Linn, pastor of First Baptist Church in Henderson, Ky.
Chuck Kelley, president of New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary, said the institution will stand firm in its support of biblical marriage regardless of any legal challenges.
“New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary affirms without reservation the biblical teachings on marriage and sexual morality,” Kelley told BP in written comments. “Marriage is between a man and a woman. Any sexual relationship outside the bonds of biblical marriage is wrong before God. All members of the NOBTS family are always responsible for upholding these biblical values. We anticipate no change in our policies or standards, and we will deal with any legal challenges to them as necessary.”
Russell Moore and Andrew Walker of the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission called Verrilli’s exchange with Alito “the most shocking moment in the arguments.” Moore is ERLC president and Walker is director of policy studies.
“If a revisionist view of redefined marriage is treated as a matter of civil rights, then the government could seek to use its tax power to coerce religious institutions to violate their own God-given consciences and their constitutionally guaranteed free exercise of religion. The Founders warned us that the power to tax is the power to destroy,” Moore and Walker wrote in an article at erlc.com.
“The Solicitor General is signaling that at least this Administration is quite open to destroying those who hold a view of marriage held by the Roman Catholic Church, the Eastern Orthodox, evangelical Protestants, Orthodox Jews, Muslims, many Sikhs and Buddhists. It was even a position held by the President himself until his most recent ideological evolution,” Moore and Walker wrote.
R. Albert Mohler Jr., president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, noted that an exchange between Chief Justice John Roberts and Verrilli also referenced religious schools. When Roberts asked, “Would a religious school that has married housing be required to afford such housing to same-sex couples?” Verrilli “did not say no,” Mohler observed.
“The Chief Justice asked the unavoidable question when he asked specifically about campus housing,” Mohler wrote in a blog post. “If a school cannot define its housing policies on the basis of its religious beliefs, then it is denied the ability to operate on the basis of those beliefs.
“The ‘big three’ issues for religious schools are the freedoms to maintain admission, hiring, and student services on the basis of religious conviction. By asking about student housing, the Chief Justice asked one of the most practical questions involved in student services. The same principles would apply to the admission of students and the hiring of faculty. All three are now directly threatened,” Mohler wrote.
Among others to weigh in on the religious liberty implications of legalizing gay marriage nationwide:
— NRB President Jerry Johnson said the possibility of religious colleges losing tax-exempt status “is a direct threat to religious liberty.”
“Verrilli cleared up any confusion,” Johnson said in an NRB news release. “The Obama administration would be open to targeting religious organizations if they dare stay true to the tenets of their faith on marriage. The intolerance of the LGBT lobby is no secret, but it is greatly disturbing to hear such an admission from the federal government.”
— Joe Carter, an ERLC communications specialist, wrote a blog post for the Acton Institute titled “How the Federal Government May Put Christian Schools Out of Business.”
Bob Jones University’s stance against interracial marriage “was indeed loathsome and contrary to Scripture, which the school later admitted when it apologized for its racist past,” Carter wrote. “But opposition to same-sex marriage is not the same as racial animus. Yet the government, through its representative, has now signaled that Christian schools may soon be treated like racists and pariahs for refusing to give up the view of marriage shared by almost all people throughout history prior to the 1990s.
“This threat is more radical than many people realize. It’s not merely that Christian schools will have to choose between accepting federal funds and keeping their religious views about sexuality. If the choice were to follow the example of schools like Hillsdale College [in Hillsdale, Mich.] or New Saint Andrews College [in Moscow, Idaho] and forego taking any federal money, the decisions about what to do would be painful, but obvious. But what is being proposed is to revoke non-profit status, a move that would destroy many schools,” Carter wrote.
— Ryan Anderson of the Heritage Foundation wrote, “Nowhere are the consequences of redefining marriage clearer than with religious liberty. And yet the Obama administration’s Solicitor General Donald Verrilli admitted that religious schools that affirm marriage as the union of a man and a woman may lose their non-profit tax-exempt status if marriage is redefined.”