Church needs legal shield to deny same-sex services, bishop tells lawmakers

JUNEAU — A Catholic bishop told the Alaska House Judiciary Committee on Thursday the church reversed a 75-year-old policy of allowing people of other faiths to get married in its landmark chapels after same-sex marriage became legal.

Edward Burns, head of the Juneau diocese, testified that the new policy applies to other popular Catholic-owned wedding destinations and will continue unless the Legislature passes a bill that would exempt clergy from civil or criminal liability for refusing to perform marriages for same-sex couples.

Burns said the policy has been in place "for a few months" and was prompted by concern that the church could be opening itself up to a legal challenge.

Same-sex marriage has been legal in Alaska since late 2014.

Now, Burns said, the Fairbanks and Juneau dioceses refuse to perform weddings unless they are between heterosexual Catholic couples.

At least two locations, including the Shrine of St. Therese in Juneau and the Immaculate Conception Church in Fairbanks, are operating under the policy. Burns did not say whether it applies to all locations owned by Catholic churches in the state, as each diocese develops its own policies.

A third chapel, the Our Lady of the Snows chapel in Girdwood, is operated under a contract with the Alyeska hotel as a destination wedding location and the legislation could protect a clause that the chapel be used only for couples who support the Catholic Church's definition of marriage, Burns said.


"This bill would provide peace of mind should we need to decline inquiries from inappropriate parties," Burns said.

The U.S. Constitution already provides protections for churches. However, Burns told the committee he believes those protections to be eroding.

"I think what the intent is, is not to provide a greater scope of protection, but to clearly identify that in Alaska we have affirmed that we hold firmly to that constitutional belief," Burns said.

Same-sex marriage has prompted many states to consider protections for religious officials and those who can perform marriages. At least 22 states currently have proposals to address the act of performing marriages and religious exemptions, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

A similar measure was vetoed by Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal after it passed through the state's legislature. The bill would have protected clergy who wouldn't perform same-sex marriages but was farther reaching than the proposal in Alaska in that it also allowed churches and affiliated religious groups to decline to serve or hire someone based on their faith.

The bill was held for further review.