Marriage and Contraception Will Dominate 2014’s Religion Headlines (Sightings)

As the New Year begins many wonder what the coming year will look like. What will be the most talked about issues. And with the Affordable Care Act moving in to full implementation and Utah's gay marriage ban in dispute -- what will the Supreme Court say about them? The cases, which likely will be deliberated upon by the High Court, could have important implications for us all.  It's possible that legally speaking the whole question of marriage equality could be decided once and for all -- in favor of marriage equality nationwide.  The contraception issue could have implications far beyond the ACA, so we'll have to watch that closely as well.  In this edition of Sightings Nathan Walker takes us through the issues and the implications.  I welcome your thoughts in response.

Marriage and Contraception Will Dominate 2014’s Religion Headlines
Thursday | Jan 9 2014
                                                                                                     Photo Credit: Lisa F. Young / Shutterstock
On the domestic front, there are two obvious frontrunners for the religion headlines likely to predominate in 2014. Both involve imminent decisions by the US Supreme Court: same-sex marriage and insurance-covered contraception.

With regard to same-sex marriage, “equal protection” will likely be the catch phrase. A significant number of lower courts are preparing to examine the constitutionality of Defense-of-Marriage-Act (DOMA) laws in several state governments. To the country’s surprise, Utah is 2014’s leader for this trend.

On December 20, 2013, federal district judge, Robert J. Shelby, held that Utah’s DOMA law violates the equal protection guaranteed by the due process clauses in the US Constitution’s fourteenth amendment. By the time Shelby issued his ruling, nine additional state courts, along with the District of Columbia, had issued similar decisions. Utah has since successfully convinced the US Supreme Court to block temporarily Shelby’s ruling until the high court definitively determines whether state governments, not the federal government, have the right to establish a definition of legal marriage.

Meanwhile, reporters have been writing about the surprise absence of Mormon outrage. After Mitt Romney became the Republican nominee for President in the 2013 election, the Church of the Latter Day Saints (LDS) stopped organizing protests and lobbying against marriage equality.

What does this shift say about Utah, where 58% of the state’s population are LDS, a once national force in helping to define legal marriage as a union between one man and one woman? In 2004, 69% of Utah’s Mormons believed that same-sex relationships should not receive legal recognition. By 2012, their opinion had changed: 54% supported civil unions and 8% supported marriage equality.

Just as the LDS Church’s stance has changed, so has the country’s. In 2004, 41% of the general public supported same-sex marriage; in 2009 57% supported civil unions but not marriage equality; by 2013, 58% thought that gay marriages should be legally recognized and that same-sex marriage-partners should benefit from the same rights as married men and women.

If looking back gives us insight into what is ahead, then the major religion story of 2014 may be a non-story. Rather than a vitriolic backlash from conservatives, religious and otherwise, the country may, like Utah, surprise spectators with a relatively subdued outcry. Likely causes: widespread fatigue about this subject and growing support for same-sex marriage. Will 2014 prove to be the year that the two-decades old topic of same-sex marriage becomes a non-issue?

With regard to insurance-covered contraception, “equal access” will likely be the catch phrase. The US Supreme Court is currently considering this question: does the 1993 Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) exempt Hobby Lobby and Conestoga Wood Specialties, both for-profit corporations, from the federal requirement to provide employees with contraceptive coverage because these corporations’ owners object on religious grounds?

The Supreme Court justices’ ruling will likely hinge on their interpretations of four particular sections of RFRA. First, they will need to determine whether a corporation is legally equivalent to a “person” who has the right to exercise his or her religion. Given that this same court ruled in favor of for-profit corporations seeking free speech rights, it is likely that a majority of the justices will (mistakenly) grant “person” status to corporations.

In this case, the justices will proceed with the second question: are the corporation-owners’ religious views “substantially burdened”? The RFRA says that if a person’s exercise of religion is found to be materially hampered by the general laws that apply to everyone (neutral laws), exemptions must be granted. In the past, Justice Scalia has led the court in ruling that the use of peyote by Native Americans did not exempt teachers from anti-drug laws.

If the religious views of the corporations’ owners are not deemed “substantially burdened,” the justices will affirm the mandate and require the owners to provide contraception coverage. Otherwise, the judges will proceed with the third and fourth interpretations. They will ask whether the federal government’s contraception mandate advances a “compelling government interest” and whether the Affordable Care Act does so with the “least restrictive means” possible. The Obama Administration has to demonstrate that universal access to contraception is a public health concern, and that there is a less substantially burdensome way of achieving this goal.

The fervor on both sides of the contraception debate suggests that regardless of who wins, the US Supreme Court rulings will likely cause a prolonged engagement in religion and public life. If so, 2014 could be the year that the legal and political agendas for various political camps are set for decades to come.

References and Further Reading:

Liptak, Adam. "Justices Block Gay Marriage in Utah During Appeal of Case." International New York Times, January 6, 2014.

Luis Lugo, “Religious Landscape Survey.” Pew Research Center, February 2008. Access by viewing the percentage of U.S. adults who are affiliated with Mormon Tradition and cross referenced with religious composition of Utah:

Luis Lugo, “Majority Continues to Support Civil Unions” Pew Research Center, October 9, 2009.

Kelly Patterson, “Public Opinion on Gay Marriage in Utah.” Brigham Young University’s Center for the Study of Elections and Democracy, July 9, 2012.

Jon Cohen, “Gay marriage support hits new high in Post-ABC poll.” Washington Post, March 19, 2013.

Tim Townsend, “Conservatives continues to oppose same-sex marriage but by smaller margins.” Pew Research Center, October 11, 2013.

Holland, Jesse. "Gov't: Birth control mandate should not be blocked." AP, January 3, 2014.

For information about the marriage case in Utah, see: Kitchen v. Herbert,

For information about the contraception mandate before the US Supreme Court, see:Sebelius v. Hobby Lobby Stores, Inc. and Conestoga Wood Specialties v. Sebelius.

Photo Credit: Lisa F. Young / Shutterstock
Author, Nathan C. Walker, is an Ed.D. Candidate in Law, Education, and Religion at Columbia University. He is the co-editor of Whose God Rules: Is the United States a Secular Nation or a Theolegal Democracy? with foreword by former British Prime Minister Tony Blair.

Editor, Myriam Renaud, is a Ph.D. Candidate in Theology at the University of Chicago Divinity School. She is co-organizing a conference, April 9-11, 2014: "God: Theological Accounts and Ethical Possibilities," at the University of Chicago Divinity School (mostly funded by the Marty Center and free to the public). For more information, visit:
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