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Gay marriage: a new bind for church groups

Religiously affiliated schools, hospitals, and others may be the next flash point.

A long engagement: Phyllis Lyon (left) and Del Martin, who filed their marriage application at San Francisco's City Hall in February 2004, will be the first same-sex couple to wed there Monday.

Liz Mangelsdorf/AP/file

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The same-sex marriage march begins across California Tuesday, with thousands of gay couples expected to wed in the coming weeks. But some notes of discord and rebellion can already be heard above Pachelbel's Canon.

Several county clerks have said they will stop performing marriage ceremonies for all couples, gay or straight. And the state supreme court, fresh from its decision to legalize gay marriage, will decide shortly on whether a private-practice doctor can deny artificial insemination to a lesbian couple.

As gay marriage gains wider legal footing, scholars anticipate a flood of such conscientious objector cases. A key flash point will be religiously affiliated organizations that serve the public, such as hospitals, schools, and adoption agencies, and hold beliefs opposed to gay marriage.

Gay rights advocates say the courts have found workable compromises so far. But opponents warn that religious groups may have to retreat dramatically from the public square unless legislatures agree to create some religious exemptions.

"As gays come out of the closet, conservative religious people are put back in the sanctuary," says Marc Stern, general counsel for the American Jewish Congress in New York.

He expects legal battles ahead in religious schools, youth groups, and summer camps. Some recent cases have already alarmed lawyers for religious groups:

• In 2006, a Methodist group in New Jersey that rented out its boardwalk to the public for weddings lost tax exemptions after refusing to allow a same-sex commitment ceremony.

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