Crain’s Chicago Business: Gay marriage approval equals business as usual in Illinois – only better

By Camilla Taylor, Crain's Chicago Business

This month, the Illinois Assembly takes up the Religious Freedom and Marriage Fairness Act, which would grant same-sex couples the freedom to marry. In an effort to defeat the bill, opponents argue that it could infringe on religious liberty by permitting lesbian or gay couples to sue churches for refusing to rent parish halls.

This is a completely manufactured concern. Same-sex couples have been marrying in the U.S. since 2004 and were renting space for informal commitment ceremonies long before that, and there has never been a lawsuit anywhere in the country by a same-sex couple against a church over a parish hall.

Government can never force clergy or religious denominations to marry anyone, and the bill prohibits lawsuits based on a church's refusal. Illinois has one of the most extensive religious freedom protections nationwide, and the bill expressly states that it neither limits nor removes pre-existing protections for religious freedom.

Some of the bill's opponents go farther than expressing concerns about parish halls. They want to permit commercial businesses to refuse to serve married lesbian or gay people if the business owner has a religious objection. But that's not how we do business in Illinois.

Since 2006, Illinois law has prohibited such discrimination based on sexual orientation by businesses, just as it prohibits race or sex-based discrimination. Religious organizations that run for-profit businesses or engage in other enterprises that serve the public generally, such as hospital emergency rooms or homeless shelters, may not turn people away based on race, sex or sexual orientation.

Our nondiscrimination laws would have little meaning if businesses could ignore them simply by describing their discrimination in religious terms. Accordingly, in interpreting nondiscrimination requirements similar to those in Illinois, courts have rejected religious justifications for excluding African-Americans from drive-in restaurants and universities, for paying female employees less than men and for a doctor's refusal to treat a lesbian patient.

A church or religious individual operating a business must follow the same rules that apply to other businesses when offering goods or services to the public — just as a church must separate out tax-exempt income (relating to charitable or religious purposes) from non-tax-exempt income (relating to commercial business) to pay taxes. The absolute liberty churches enjoy in the religious sphere does not extend to for-profit activities in the commercial sphere.

The marriage bill properly keeps current nondiscrimination laws governing businesses intact. Lesbian and gay Illinoisans should not have to trade hard-fought protection from discrimination by businesses and social services in return for the freedom to marry.

It's a win-win situation for businesses. Rules for businesses will not change, and economists predict that the bill would boost the state's economy as thousands of same-sex couples around the state celebrate weddings. Providing a welcoming environment for lesbian and gay people and their families will help Illinois be competitive and attract and retain the most successful companies and employees. Numerous Illinois-based businesses, CEOs and executives from companies including Groupon Inc., Starcom, Google Inc., and Garrett Popcorn Holding Co. support for the bill for just this reason.

Creating a healthy economic climate that attracts and retains the best possible employees — that's the real concern for the vast majority of Illinois businesses.

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