SPidge Tales

Monday, February 12, 2007

Implications of Gay Marriage

England allows gay adoption. This fact is not a big surprise. I would assume that all western European nations would today. Even the United States allows it, and the U.S. is one of the most conservative western democracies. What is unique is that in Britain, adoption is not just an option for gay couples who desire a child. It is a requirement for all agencies and organizations that work in the adoption field to grant custody of foster children to gay couples. The Catholic Church, home to service organizations such as Catholic Charities, requested an exemption. Part of Catholic Charities mission, along with feeding the poor and providing services to help the destitute get back on track, is placing foster and orphaned children with adoptive parents. Until now, Catholic Charities would only place children with married couples and with single persons not living with a significant other outside of marriage. Claiming that homosexual relationships go against the organization’s core beliefs on moral life and the family, Catholic Charities asked to be exempted from the new requirement based on religious freedom clauses. After much deliberation, Parliament ruled against Catholic Charities. Either Catholic Charities must include gay couples in their regular rotation of placing children, or Catholic Charities must opt out of adoption services.

Issues of gay rights and gay marriage are very divisive. Conservatives argue that granting rights to gays undercuts traditional moral values. Liberals argue that in a pluralistic society, one set of values should not impede people’s rights in the public sphere. The argument for gay rights seems fair enough. Granting certain rights does not prevent persons morally opposed to those rights from abstaining. Alcohol is legal, but those morally opposed to drinking have a right to refrain from drinking and have a right to create personal living and business atmospheres that reflect their beliefs. A non-drinker can open a restaurant that does not serve alcohol. If the issue of gay rights were that simple, the public debate would be over, traditional values types could avoid ‘dens of sin’ at their own discretion, and gays could live as they please. But, as the case over gay adoption in England illustrates, the debate is not so simple.

A good parallel is the civil rights movement in the 20th century (wow, is the 20th century that long ago that we can now refer to it the way my teachers referred to the 19th century in the late 90’s, when I was in high school?). Before I make this comparison, I must clarify. While those in favor of gay rights compare their plight to that of blacks in the mid-20th century, and see their cause as a continuation of the civil rights movement, I am not making this comparison in the same fashion. That type of comparison is one that ipso facto turns off a number of readers from the start. Liberals who compare the gay rights movement to the civil rights movement need to realize that conservatives look at this comparison about as fondly as liberals look at pro-lifers comparisons of abortion to slavery and Roe V. Wade to Dred Scott, or, as fondly as everyone but the most hard core PETA activists look upon the comparison of animal butcher factories to the Holocaust. My comparison is one that draws an analogy to potential conflicts in religious freedom.

What is religious freedom? The 1st amendment grants each person the right to believe and worship as he pleases. A person may belong to any church he wishes or no church at all. It is not the state’s role to interfere with religion or favor any one religion over another. However, like any right, religious freedom is limited. If your faith calls you to perform human sacrifice, the government will rightly prevent you from full religious freedom. However, there are cases where religious freedom allows you to avoid some of the laws of the land. A Quaker may opt out of military conscription because of the Quaker faith’s deeply held tradition of pacifism. Children are required by law to stay in school until age 16. However, Amish children are granted an exemption, because it is custom for Amish girls to finish school around age 12. When the Civil Rights movement, Martin Luther King, Jr., Rosa Parks, Jackie Robinson, Brown Vs. Board of Ed, and other persons and actions led to the collapse of the morally poisonous Jim Crow laws, many churches were supportive of equal rights, particularly black churches. Some very conservative churches, and some really conservative Christians, such as Bob Jones, still opposed equal rights. They believed that God somehow deemed certain races inferior, and declared that the Bible forbade interracial dating and marriage (despite the fact that Biblical proscriptions against intermarriage were based on religion more so than race. The worry was dilution of the faith. These rules were not universal, but particular to specific times and places). With religious freedom, these bigoted churches had the right to remain prejudiced. However, they lost any real role they had in American society. Like the Ku Klux Klan, they retained their right to exist based on 1st Amendment principles, but would never receive government help and support in services, unlike mainstream groups like Catholic Charities, because of their practices of discrimination. It is good that racist and bigoted churches and organizations lost any moral authority they may have had. But, should churches and organizations opposed to some gay rights lose their place and standing in public life? That is the big question.

A popular condescending comment towards opponents of same-sex marriage often goes along the lines of, “what’s your problem? We’re not forcing you to marry someone of the same sex. We’re not forcing your religious group to sponsor or support same-sex marriage. We are just asking for it in the public sphere.” If it were only so simple. Yes, no religion will be forced to perform gay weddings. But, marriages that take place in churches, whether Catholic or Protestant, and in synagogues, whether Orthodox or Reform, are recognized by law as civil marriages. A day could come when the government decides to only accept as valid civil marriages those that take place in “non-discriminatory” churches. Churches that receive funds for non-proselytizing social services could see their government grants disappear based on anti-discrimination laws if they still retain moral teachings in opposition to gay marriage.

Is this all part of the inevitable march to progress? Like religions that performed human sacrifice, or religions that discriminated against women, or religions that oppose gay rights, will they eventually die out or change based on growing standards that become enshrined into law? Much of this owes, I believe, to a misunderstanding of the word discrimination. The verb ‘to discriminate’ is not in and of itself negative. We discriminate all the time and must to function well. A driver who cannot discriminate between red and green lights won’t be on the road very long. Discriminate means to tell the difference between things. There is just discrimination and unjust discrimination. Discrimination against gays comes in two forms (maybe more, but dualism, if not a realistic descriptive term for real everyday life, works great in writing and in making analogies): discrimination against them because of who they are and discrimination against them because of what they do. The military ban on gays is one based solely on who they are. Laws against gay marriage are bans based on what gays do. Comparing the plight of gays to the plight of blacks in the past century is a bad comparison because blacks were discriminated because of who they are, and gays are discriminated against, save cases such as the military ban, because of what they do.

None but the worst bigot would call for gays to be banned from engaging in personal relationships. Gays, like straights, should be allowed to do as they please in private with other consenting adults. All people have the right to the most loving or debaucherous sex they please, so long as it is consensual. But civil acknowledgment of marriage, one type of sexual relationship out of many (I could mention others such as polygamy, swinging, friends with benefits, etc.), means that the government is saying that marriage is good for society. It is beneficial for a man and woman to marry. People can sleep around, or shack up, or do whatever they please without civil penalty, but the government will not grant benefits or a special title to these activities because they are not good for society.

The question remains: is same-sex marriage good for society? Is it a basic right that gays deserve? I cannot pretend to have a full answer for it, independent of religious motivations. It is obviously better for someone who is going to engage in a homosexual lifestyle anyway to make it monogamous. But, should that be granted equal status with straight marriage? Discrimination against gays based on who they are (military bans) is obviously immoral. But, is discrimination—in this case a discrimination that does not subject gays to ghettos or jails or any civil penalty, but just leaves their legal personal lives unrecognized—against gays based on what they do just or unjust? To rephrase that, is the government correct to tacitly endorse the notion that the marriage commitment between man and woman is superior to all other sexual relationships, even granting that those other relationships can take place without civil penalty? I sound like a damn lawyer. I’m not going to give an answer, but people on both sides of the debate need to realize that there are far-reaching implications going into areas such as religious freedom and the way children are taught in schools. It’s much more than a question of granting people private rights.


Anonymous bernie said...

good job on a tough subject-i'll have to be publicly speaking about it in a few months

4:40 PM  

Post a Comment

Subscribe to Post Comments [Atom]

<< Home