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By Michael McKinney January 27, 2013

The National Organization for Marriage-Rhode Island says religious groups have been forced to allow same-sex marriage ceremonies in their facilities

As the Rhode Island House of Representatives moved toward a vote on legalizing same-sex marriage, an ad appeared in some local newspapers asserting that those who oppose same-sex marriage had been penalized in other states.

The ad, headlined  "The Big Lie," was purchased by the National Organization for Marriage-Rhode Island, which opposes same-sex marriage.

It made several claims, including this one: "Religious groups like Knights of Columbus have been forced to allow same-sex marriage ceremonies in their facilities, against their beliefs." The ad included the names and phone numbers of local legislators and urged readers to ask them to oppose same-sex marriage legislation.

We wondered what was behind NOM’s statement, because one of the key issues in Rhode Island’s debate over same-sex marriage is whether those who oppose it on religious grounds could face legal liability if it becomes law.

We contacted the marriage group, whose regional coordinator, Christopher Plante, e-mailed us various incidents summarized in its blog and links to others.

Only one involved the Knights of Columbus. And that was in Canada.

Here’s what we found: In 2003, two Canadian women booked a Knights of Columbus Hall owned by the Archdiocese of Vancouver for their wedding reception. (Same-sex marriage has been legal in British Columbia since July 2003 and overall in Canada since July 2005.)

After learning about the nature of the event, the Knights told the women they could not use the hall. They found another location but filed a complaint with the British Columbia Human Rights Tribunal.

We read the tribunal’s somewhat contradictory split decision, issued in 2005. On the one hand, it said it "accepts that the Knights are entitled to this constitutional protection and therefore cannot be compelled to act in a manner that is contrary to their core religious beliefs."

But it also declared that the Knights’ conduct was discriminatory and ordered the group to pay $1,000 to each of the women "for injury to their dignity, feelings and self-respect" and "to refrain from committing the same or similar contravention" of anti-discrimination rules.

But contrary to NOM’s advertisement, it did not force the Knights "to allow same-sex marriage ceremonies in their facilities."

NOM cited another instance in which the owner of an Annapolis, Md., trolley tour service, based on his religious beliefs, purportedly decided in 2012 to get out of the wedding tour business so he would not have to take on same-sex couples as clients. (Same-sex marriage became legal in Maryland in March 2012 and was affirmed by voters in November.)

NOM cited a Patch Annapolis article as its source. But the example has little relevance to NOM’s claim. The tour bus company is not a religious organization and it was not forced to do anything.

In a subsequent interview, Plante referred to another case involving Methodists in the New Jersey community of Ocean Grove.

Here’s what we found: In 2007, Harriet Bernstein, 70, a retired school administrator, and Luisa Paster, 64, a retired academic librarian, decided to have a civil-union ceremony. (Like Rhode Island, New Jersey allows civil unions but not same-sex marriages.)

The couple wanted their ceremony at a waterfront pavilion that was advertised for marriage and other public events and was owned by the Ocean Grove Camp Meeting Association, which describes itself as  "God’s Square Mile at the Jersey Shore."  

The Methodist group refused to allow the couple to use the facility.

Bernstein and Paster instead held their ceremony in June 2007 at a nearby fishing pier.

The couple complained to the New Jersey Division on Civil Rights, which decided in October 2012 that, because the association received a tax exemption from the state’s Green Acres program, the pavilion had to be open to anyone in the future.

Again, the example NOM cited didn’t support its claim because the Methodist group hadn’t been forced to hold a same-sex ceremony. (It’s conceivable, of course,  that a same-sex couple might press the issue in the future.)

We searched the Internet for any examples in which a religious group had been forced to host a same-sex ceremony against its beliefs. We couldn’t find any.

Our ruling

The National Organization for Marriage-Rhode Island said in a newspaper advertisement that "religious groups like Knights of Columbus have been forced to allow same-sex marriage ceremonies in their facilities, against their beliefs."

But the Knights of Columbus incident cited as proof by Plante, NOM’s regional coordinator, was from Canada and did not support its claim.

Neither did the second example it cited. Nor the third.

NOM made a strongly worded claim on the eve of a key vote that was meant to influence voters -- and their legislators.

We can’t predict what could happen under same-sex marriage laws in the future.

But we can rule on claims that are so far from the truth. The judges rule Pants on Fire.

(If you have a claim you’d like PolitiFact Rhode Island to check, e-mail us at [email protected]. And follow us on Twitter: @politifactri.)

Featured Fact-check

Our Sources

British Columbia Human Rights Tribunal,  "Smith and Chymyshyn v. Knights of Columbus and Others," Nov. 29, 2005, accessed on Jan. 21, 2013

New Jersey Office of the Attorney General, Division on Civil Rights, via the American Civil Liberties Union-New Jersey, "Bernstein, et al. v. Ocean Grove Camp Meeting Association,"  Oct. 23, 2012, decision, accessed on Jan. 23 and 25, 2013

British Columbia Human Rights Tribunal, "Human Rights Code,"Section 37 "Remedies," accessed on Jan. 24, 2013, "Religious Wedding Vendor Seeks Exemption for Gay Marriages," Dec. 5, 2012, accessed on Jan. 21, 2013

Interview, Christopher Plante, regional coordinator, National Organization for Marriage Rhode Island, Jan. 22, 2013

The Baltimore Sun, "Voters Approve Same-Sex Marriage Law," Nov. 7, 2012, accessed on Jan. 23, 2013

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