Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Same-sex Marriage Opponents, and the Fear of... Discrimination?

With marriage equality now the law in four of these United States, and the brilliant Nate Silver offering predictions as to when other states will do the same, and a President in the White House who has indicated a desire to overturn the DOMA (even if Obama isn't quite ready to embrace SSM)--opponents of same-sex marriage appear to know they have a losing battle as much. Rod Dreher seems to concede as much in an interview with Maggie Gallagher; though Maggie isn't ready to come off the proverbial farm, it seems.

At any rate, a shift in tactics is being observed... SSM opponents are repositioning themselves as a minority, of sorts, who will soon be subject to discrimination and bigotry over their ideological opposition to SSM.

Ahh, the irony!

Of course, many arguments being advanced have little to do with marriage, and have more to do with the issue of sexuality in general. The "National Organization for Marriage", a collection of SSM opponents, recently released a video detailing they tyranny they think will come about were marriage equality to become legalized. Of course, none of the examples they cite (a parent objecting to discussion of sexuality in a public school curriculum, a doctor refusing to treat a lesbian, and a church being fined by civil rights authorities for refusing to rent its facilities to a gay couple) occurred in a state which presently recognized gay marriage; and only the latter example had anything to do with marriage at all. But there is a common theme here--an argument being introduced into the public debate that private religious convictions ought to trump public accommodation and civil rights laws; and that if SSM is legalized, it will lead us down a slippery slope where those opposed to gay marriage will be fired from their jobs, harassed by the state, and otherwise have their lives made miserable. Kind of like gay people have been treated until recently (and still are in many places), don't you think?

Certainly, religious doctrine can and should trump civil rights concerns in ecclesiastic matters, and it does today. Despite numerous laws forbidding gender discrimination in employment, the Roman Catholic Church remains perfectly free to ordain only men into the priesthood--the argument that Title IX or something else applies to the clergy of a faith would get laughed out of court. SSM is unlikely to change that one bit. Likewise, a church which makes its facilities available to congregation members only, for things like baptisms, weddings, funerals, or other events part of the church life--isn't likely to be forced to permit Adam and Steve to march down its aisle.

However, when a religious organization enters the public marketplace--then it has to obey the law. The New Jersey church in the video in question, makes its facilities available to the general public. By doing so, the ecclesiastic exception no longer applies--if you can pay the deposit, you should be able to hire the hall. Likewise, were a church to post an advertisement for a janitor or a groundskeeper with no religious duties--anti-discrimination law applies here, too. And the doctor in question not only was violating California state law concerning discrimination, she was also violating her chosen profession's code of ethics and her professional obligations. Religion is not, nor should be, a "get out of jail free card" for those laws that the faithful might find objectionable. Render unto Caesar and all that.

But I think the anti-SSM crowd have a deeper fear than they are letting on. Back in the 50s and 60s, when laws like the Civil Rights Act and the Fair Housing Act were being debated--similar arguments were frequently being made regarding race--that it violated a persons freedom (of association or whatever) to be prevented from hanging a "whites only" sign on the door. Such arguments were laughable then and are laughable now; nobody forces a bigot to have black friends or to like African-Americans--you simply cannot exclude them from the public sphere. But what has happened to racists (and racism) since the 1960s?

They've become marginalized. Ostracized. While racism certainly still exists in our body politic, these days it has to hide behind code words ("crime", "radical", or even "terrorist")--no mainstream political figure dare make openly racist argument--even in those parts of the country where a significant part of the electorate might sympathize. And, yes--if you go to work and start complaining about your black co-workers, in many places you are likely to get fired. Not because the law says you must; but because openly racist attitudes are regarded as the stuff of crackpots. The society has changed; and attitudes which were commonplace and out of the open forty years ago today have to hide in the (ahem) closet.

This, I think, is what many gay marriage opponents fear: Not that they will be oppressed by the government, but that they will be discarded as irrelevant by society. Maggie Gallagher and her ilk are, I suspect, that they will soon be regarded like the David Dukes of the world are regarded today--as pariahs, as a sideshow, as the obnoxious uncle who gets drunk and says stupid things over Thanksgiving dinner. Many people regard them as that today.

The republic today is, I think, far better off with open racism now regarded as a fringe viewpoint. I think it will be better off when homophobia joins it on the sideline. I will certainly oppose any attempts to outlaw homophobic speech, no matter how much I may disagree--but I look forward to the day when those who make such speeches, are no longer taken seriously.

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