Did one year of marriage equality in Minnesota impact ‘religious freedom’?

by August 1, 2014

It’s been a year of marriage equality in Minnesota, and much of the warnings issued by opponents of marriage equality have proven to be a lot of hype.

Despite claims by opponents of equality that the religious liberty rights of Minnesotans would be infringed, pastors would go to jail, churches would be targeted, and businesses would be fined for refusing to serve same-sex couples, none of that has occurred. At least, based on the lack of media reports, marriage equality has gone smoothly for everyone.

But TheColu.mn decided to dig a bit deeper to see of we missed anything.

TheColu.mn reached out to the Minnesota Family Council, but did not receive a response. We also attempted to contact Minnesota for Marriage, but that group’s messages are now forwarding to a public relations firm representing the National Organization for Marriage. That public relations firm also did not respond.

However, Jason Adkins of the Minnesota Catholic Conference did respond to a question about the warnings that were issued.

“We know of some business owners who have been threatened by an allegedly aggrieved same-sex couple for turning down their request for a wedding service, including floral arrangements,” said Adkins. “We know of others who have decided to not participate in certain types of business practices related to wedding services (videography, wedding cakes) because they fear prosecution and do not want to violate their conscience.”

Adkins did not provide any examples.

“We also know of one business owner who has already had an enforcement action brought against him by the Minnesota Department of Human Rights for refusing to hold a same-sex marriage/reception on his property,” he said. “He was forced to pay a heavy fine in a settlement, as well as pay a penalty to the State.”

Adkins said that “out of respect for the privacy of these business owners, we won’t provide you with their contact names, but I believe you should be able to verify with the Department that they have enforced the Human Rights Act in at least this one instance in this regard.”

TheColu.mn reached out to the Minnesota Department of Human Rights, but the department cannot legally divulge information about cases until they are closed. That includes even providing the number of cases that are currently being worked on. As of July 31, the department has not closed any case related to discrimination against same-sex couples and their marriages.

“Regarding same-sex marriage cases, we do not have any closed cases at this time,” said department spokeswoman Christine Dufour.

Phil Duran, Legal Director for OutFront Minnesota, has been following the issue closely. In the one case he is aware of, the issue wasn’t about religious liberty. That may or may not be the case that Adkins of the Minnesota Catholic Conference was referring to.

“I am aware of one complaint that went through [the Minnesota Department of Human Rights], and to my knowledge, the business owners did not invoke specific religious objections. In that case the business owners were, from what I hear, not fined, but voluntarily agreed to resolve the complaint for a money payment to the complaining parties.”

Duran said he’s heard of one other instance where there may have been a religious objection involved in denying a same-sex couples services, but details are sketchy.

The fact that as few as one complaint has been filed in the year since same-sex marriage become legal is intriguing.

“To some degree, what’s surprising is that there seem to be fairly few such complaints,” said Duran. “Some opponents of marriage equality all but invited business owners throughout Minnesota to refuse service to same-sex couples by asserting what they believe to be their “religious freedom” to ignore the law, yet it would seem that by and large, business owners have ignored that suggestion.”

Indeed, the Minnesota Family Council held a “religious freedom forum” last fall in order to teach people of faith and business owners about their rights.

In one email, the Minnesota Family Council promised to provide legal cover to those businesses who discriminated against same-sex couples: “Yes, like in every other state that has redefined marriage, people of faith will be sued as ‘discriminators’ for standing up for their beliefs. However, unlike some of our legislators, we won’t abandon you. We have powerful legal resources like Alliance Defending Freedom and others to come to your aid and defend you and your religious freedoms.”

Duran added that some couples have simply ignored discrimination. “It would seem likely that couples seeking flowers, cakes, halls, and the like, if they experience discrimination, are simply taking their business elsewhere and not letting other people’s behavior distract them from celebrating their marriages.”

In one year of same-sex marriage being legal in Minnesota, there might have been one case where a business invoked religious objections to providing services to a same-sex couple. That’s out of an estimated 3,800 same-sex couples who have wed since Aug. 1, 2013.

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