Gay Rights and Christians and Kansas, Oh My! When liberal tolerance goes too far

The Bill of Rights in stick figures. Illustration from "The Violation of the Bishops." Click the sticks to read.
The Bill of Rights in stick figures. Illustration from “The Violation of the Bishops.” Click the sticks to read.

Ready, set, GO! Tolerance contest!

I’ll go first. I believe that gay people ought to have equal rights under the law, and I ALSO believe that the law should protect the right of religious people to say bad things about gays and not to associate with gays, because I make room for all viewpoints and creeds.

Can you beat that?

The pundits’ curse

We writers are easily distracted. We’re motoring along, arguing about the merits and implementation of civil rights, and then suddenly we begin pointing fingers at each other over whether we’re real conservatives or real liberals.

Conservatives who claim to love small government and citizens’ personal agency shock us when they try to legislate what happens in people’s bedrooms or stop the family of a brain-dead person from removing life support.

On the other hand, fellow writer Damon Linker schooled me on Twitter yesterday: “Haven’t any of you people ever heard of the liberal principle that we defend people’s freedom to be wrong?”

As Andrew Sullivan explains in a recent piece, “What The Hell Just Happened In Kansas?,” “true liberals” make room even for religious people who think homosexuality is “Satanic.”

So liberals who scorn others’ sincere Biblical devotion aren’t being liberal at all; they’re just engaging in another form of discrimination. You can join the Twitter skirmish if you want.

Damon and Daniel duke it out

Linker, who says he’s not a conservative, has written a series of pieces arguing for respect and legal protections, as a matter of religious freedom, for people who object to gay marriage. I responded in Broad Street Review last year; writer Daniel Wright also replied recently on his own site with a thought experiment about a fictional cultural group whose sacred text outlaws left-handed people. If that group came to power, would they be justified in making laws against the use of the left hand for everyone, because their doctrine means so much to them?

What the hell did happen in Kansas?

The stakes for the question Wright asks are even higher than usual, since the Kansas House of Representatives passed a bill that could result in de facto segregation of gay people. The law would support any individual, business or government employee who refused to interact with or render services to anyone they suspect may be party to a gay relationship.

This is Kansas’s response to the threat of “discrimination” against Christians — discrimination here meaning, presumably, being required to serve a beer, rent an apartment or provide medical treatment or social services to a gay person against your Biblical conscience.

Who suffers more? The Christian restaurateur who is galled by gays but gives them a table anyway, or a hungry gay couple who sees a sign reading “Heterosexuals Only”? Kansas lawmakers think it’s the former.

Racism vs. homophobia

Linker and similar commentators don’t go that far in defense of free speech and religious freedom principles, but the bedrock argument seems the same: racists who can’t throw a black person out of their stores have not had their rights trampled in the way that religious objectors to homosexuality would have their rights trampled if they couldn’t refuse service to gay couples.

At heart, Linker and I agree about at least one thing: free speech is a two-way street. Even if it tried, the government could not force a single perspective on everyone, and nor should it. (I try to strike a balance between Rush Limbaugh and Yo, Is This Racist?.) New York City could make a law stipulating that retailers must roll a red carpet out whenever a gay person approaches the store, and that wouldn’t abridge people’s ability to speak and write about their objections to gay marriage, rally outside the store, or boycott New York City businesses.

So write on, Mr. Linker. Even though you’re not right on.

Cuz I said so

One thing Wright doesn’t ask in his hypothetical narrative about religious objections to left-handed people is whether there is any objective measure of religious belief versus bigotry.

Is there any way to prove that someone’s objection to gays’ equal rights is founded on religious principle, and is not just a personal or ingrained cultural prejudice, like racism, that is then justified by religion (as segregation used to be)? When there are plenty of devoutly religious people in America who support gay rights or who are gay themselves, why are we so sure that objectors to gay rights are acting on a categorical religious principle that should get special respect from the rest of us?

I’m perfectly willing to admit that I get antsy here and may not be as liberal as I like to think I am, by Linker’s definition. To me, the question of whether or not certain human beings are “less than” under the law is not equivalent to a conversation between, say, a vegetarian and a meat-eater, or a home-birth advocate and a woman who prefers the hospital. The latter cases are matters of personal choice that don’t infringe anyone’s human rights and deserve equal attention. The former is about whether the Constitution really does apply to us all, and it pisses me off faster than bad customer service. But opponents of gay rights (and worse, liberal supporters) keep pretending that the matter is like any other civilized difference of opinion.

After Loving vs. Virginia

Logically, I cannot understand why people who otherwise support gay rights spend their breath (or keyboards) on burnishing the Constitutional rights of the objectors — not because the objectors don’t deserve those rights, but because they already have them, as they should.

Want proof? The US Supreme Court struck down laws banning interracial marriage in 1967. But the Ku Klux Klan thrives today, especially in my home state of Pennsylvania, with the full protection of the First Amendment, as long as they don’t actually commit violence.

Why should it be any different for gay marriage objectors (most of whom aren’t nearly as bad as the KKK) once marriage equality exists in all 50 states?

You thought Obamacare was bad…

Call me a faux-liberal if you want. Call me anti-religious. To me, Kansas’s new bill is like an ER without triage.

Since it chose to shield so-called Christian consciences instead of gays’ human rights, the Kansas House of Representatives is like a hospital that sends people with sprained ankles to the ICU while telling heart attack victims to wait in the car.

When American Christians are regularly bullied, beaten and even killed for being Christian, when so many Christian youth are forced out of their families that they make up almost half of the young people living on the street, when Christians face eviction or firing without legal recourse because of their faith, or when being Christian is a matter of birth and not choice, then we should raise a ruckus about protecting their rights equal to the ruckus we raise about protecting gay people’s rights. Until then, liberal detours to promote the Constitutional right of religious objectors to denigrate gay people are just a bunch of political and philosophical hot air.

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  1. Being anti-gay is a group marker. You know you are “One of Us” if you campaign against gay marriage. So there is this Group of people over there protecting their Culture and Way of Life, and the Liberal looks at it, wonderingly. The gay people in that group don’t seem so happy. What do you think of “Survival International”, campaigning for tribal peoples to protect their lands, cultures and ways of life? Climate change denial can be a group marker too. Watching Jon Stewart on the telly, perhaps.

    • Yes, we all have our tribes – Americans in particular, it would seem. I don’t watch much telly because the noise drives me crazy, but I do catch the occasional Jon Steward segment online.

      • We liberals like to think we are not that tribal- here am I chatting to you from England- but some people appear to be. So the liberal outsider presuming to correct them makes them circle their wagons. You might offer succour to the gay survivors who escape, but correcting their oppressors is a personal attack.

      • I can live with making an attack vs. succor where I feel like a real injustice is happening, it if could stop more people from suffering. But I’d only focus the attack on a fellow writer/commentator whom I believed could take the heat that I’ve often taken myself when someone disagrees with what I write. If you can’t handle people’s responses to your work, don’t put it out there. And I prefer to see it as attacking a person’s ideas and rhetoric, not the person themselves (i.e. avoiding ad hominem arguments). They have every right to argue back. Thanks as always for adding to the discussion.

  2. The law definitely has a role in protecting all people, regardless of any particular group or class distinctions, from physical harm, theft, trespass, destruction of property, and so on, perpetrated by others. Beyond that, the main issue is societal attitudes toward particular groups of people. Laws follow societal attitudes. Further, as prejudices wane, and particular groups become more accepted in society, the market itself will discriminate against businesses that discriminate. Those businesses that deny service to particular groups will get less business, while those that do provide service to them will get more. I am sympathetic to business owners who have strong feelings about particular groups and don’t wish to interact with them. However, as those groups gain in social acceptance, if there are similar businesses in town that do serve them, those businesses will get their business, and will have an edge over the ones that don’t. In a competitive business arena, even small business advantages can have a big effect. I believe that education and action to change societal attitudes will, in the end, be far more effective than laws that attempt to force people to accept groups that they don’t now accept.

    • I totally agree that it’s not going to get done by laws alone, and in his piece, Andrew Sullivan makes the same point you do – that conscientious consumers can skip bigoted businesses and patronize more accepting ones, and effect change that way. But laws and the free market will have to work together in the long run. I don’t think the Jim Crow South would have naturally begun to integrate its schools and businesses without federal enforcement. And eliminating “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” had to be done through a change in government policy, not consumer behavior, and that was an important component of advancing equal rights in the US. And many issues of discrimination don’t revolve around the business world – there are things like inheritance and custody and adoption rights that won’t be fixed by letting an increasingly progressive free market work.

      • Yes. For one (major) thing, there’s a big distinction between government institutions and private ones. Even if private institutions are allowed to discriminate, government ones should provide equal access and services regardless of various issues of class, race, orientation, etc. etc. That means the military, the police, government-run schools, and other government institutions should not be allowed to discriminate against particular groups of people either in their hiring or in their providing of services. With government as pervasive as it is in U.S. society today, that in itself has a major impact on attitudes toward persecuted minorities.

        Also, don’t forget that “don’t ask, don’t tell” was originally instituted as a more accepting alternative to an outright ban on gays and lesbians in the U.S. military. Of course, it was only a step in the right direction, and it did in time need to give way to full acceptance of gays and lesbians in the military. But in all the vilification of “don’t ask, don’t tell,” it’s easy to lose sight of the fact that when it was first instituted, it actually was a baby step in the right direction.

      • Yes – we can call Don’t Ask Don’t Tell a positive baby step, and still be glad that law is history. I think a lot of liberals have a knee-jerk anti-military stance, but the truth is that the US military has been on the front lines of major cultural shifts before. The US military was racially integrated way before the rest of the country was, and set a major example of how life ought to be in that respect. Now the military is giving full rights and recognition to same-sex employees before many US states are.

        That Kansas law is so poisonous b/c it does give government institutions the right to discriminate against gay couples – I agree discrimination by a government agency is of a different magnitude than discrimination by a private business or entity, but they’re both rotten.

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