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Gay marriage looms as 'battle of our times'

As Senate prepares to argue marriage amendment, room for compromise between religious freedom and equal rights seems thin.

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The battle over same-sex marriage is shaping into something more than deep societal tradition vs. civil rights. It is becoming a conflict of equality vs. religious liberty.

As gays make gains, some religious institutions are coming under pressure. For instance:

• A Christian high school in Wildomar, Calif., is being sued for expelling two students on suspicion of being lesbian. The parents' suit claims that the school is a business under state civil rights law, which prohibits discrimination based on sexual orientation.

• Catholic Charities in Boston, where same-sex marriage is legal, recently shuttered its adoption agency rather than serve gay and lesbian couples in conflict with church teaching. The church's request for a religious waiver from state antidiscrimination rules has made no headway.

• Christian clubs at several universities are fighting to maintain school recognition while restricting their leadership to those who conform to their beliefs on homosexuality.

Meanwhile, the Christian Legal Society and similar groups are mounting a national effort to challenge antidiscrimination policies in court, claiming they end up discriminating against conservative Christians.

"The fight over same-sex marriage - and two very different conceptions of the ordering of society - will be a knock-down, drag-out battle," predicts Marc Stern, a religious liberty attorney at the American Jewish Congress.

Both sides are pursuing their agendas in state legislatures, courts, and public schools. Both sides tend to view the struggle as a zero-sum, society-defining conflict. For supporters of gay marriage, it represents the last stage in America's long road to equality, from racial to gender to sexual equality. For opponents, traditional marriage stands as the God-ordained bedrock of society, essential to the well-being of children and the healthy functioning of the community.

While no one expects the courts to force unwilling clergy to perform weddings for same-sex couples, some see a possibility that religious groups (other than houses of worship) could lose their tax-exempt status for not conforming to public policy, as did fundamentalist Bob Jones University, over racial issues in 1983.

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