There have been many very thoughtful pieces written on the issue of whether those with religious convictions that lead them to oppose gay marriage should be forced to provide services — such as photography, baking cakes and the like — for gay marriages. (Here’s one, at Forbes, written by Ilya Shapiro.) Does it constitute discrimination to refuse such services to gay couples? Or is the refusal an act of religious freedom, protected by the First Amendment? A recent piece at National Catholic Reporter by a Sr. Joan Chittister was not among the pieces that seek to shed light rather than heat on this topic.
Before going any further, let me state my own position: I do not object to gay marriage. And I think it is the charitable thing to do for vendors to provide services for gay marriages, whether they support them or not. But I have mixed feelings about whether these vendors should be forced by law to provide such services for such marriages.
All the gay marriage opponents I know are extremely loving and charitable toward gay people in their lives and do not believe in excluding them or discriminating against them. They just don’t believe marriage should go beyond one man-one woman. And, for them, to provide services for a gay marriage ritual amounts to an affirmation of something their consciences cannot abide.
But now back to Sr. Joan. In her piece, she argues that there are two types of religious people–those who believe in the golden rule and those who….exclude people. She asserts that this latter type of religious group “made its first great public move in Arizona…just after the country in a great sweeping gesture of goodwill voted against discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation.” (I assume she is referring to a law, vetoed by Arizona’s Republican governor, that would have affirmed religious freedom rights for those who did not wish to participate in any way in gay marriages.)
She goes on to liken these “exclusionists” to others throughout history, and, yes, she connects this kind of exclusionism to that practiced by the Ku Klux Klan toward “Jews, Catholics and blacks,” or by Nazis to the “gypsies” (not sure why she decided on that persecuted group alone among those set for extermination by the Nazis), etc.
To which, I thought: The “goodwill” sweeping the country, of which she writes, must have bypassed her, for she demonstrates none for the “other” in her life– those who disagree with her, those who hold contrary views. She gives them not one iota of understanding, doesn’t even imply these might be people of goodwill themselves, wrestling with how to lead good lives.
Instead, she is quick to liken them to evil men who wanted not just to exclude people but to exterminate them. That’s quite a leap to make–to think of those who don’t hold your opinion on gay marriage as murderers. How sad that a nun preaching the gospel of the golden rule doesn’t understand that she, too, has become exclusionary, unwilling to see or listen to the thoughtful arguments of her opponents, quick to group them over there, with those killers. They are “the other” to her.
The alacrity with which gay rights supporters leap to demonize their opponents is beginning to trouble some of their colleagues. Damon Linker over at The Week writes how he is dismayed by the attitudes of some gay marriage supporters, by the “stunning lack of charity, magnanimity, and tolerance displayed by many gay marriage advocates.”
When you deal in the conservative world of ideas, you come across a lot of devout people, many of whom might be called the “religious right.” You might not agree with them all the time, but you do respect and, yes, love them–because you see them as real people struggling to figure out what path God expects them to follow. They don’t want to kill gays or exclude them from jobs or other activities. But they do wonder if they violate their conscience by participating in events that affirm a rite they do not support: gay marriage. I sympathize with their struggles. I think of them with tenderness. And, if Sr. Joan were truly interested in converting them to her point of view, she should, from a purely practical standpoint, start by dropping the exclusionist, murdering, Jim Crow segregationist labels. Why is she eager to use such hateful analogies? Where is her own love for those who disagree with her?
What she doesn’t seem to understand is what the First Amendment really protects. During debates about the contraception mandate in the Affordable Care Act, for example, I’ve been shocked to find many liberals who seem to think that free conscience means…free to see what’s right through their eyes. As I’ve pointed out to them and others many, many times (borrowing the title of a wonderful book on the First Amendment by Kevin Seamus Hasson), the First Amendment protects…the right to be wrong. In other words, I think church teaching against contraception is wrong. But devout people who want to follow their church’s teaching on this issue have the right to be wrong.
In other words, these people, with whom I might not agree, are not evil. They simply hold views I don’t share. They have the right to do that.
I know, from previous debates, that those on the contrary side of this argument will point to slippery slopes and outrageous examples of where such reasoning could land. To which I say, yes, First Amendment cases can be complex and not easily decided as jurists weigh whether the state has a compelling interest in demanding that an individual violate his or her conscience. But encouraging citizens to use their conscience is a good thing. To expand on one of Sr. Joan’s analogies: Do we really want a society of people willing just to obey orders? Isn’t it better to live in a community where individuals do try to determine what it is God wants them to do, what is right and wrong?
The country has been moving swiftly toward acceptance of gay marriage. I hope that continues. But it won’t be because of the work of people like Sr. Joan. When she likens her opponents to evildoers of the past, she makes it easy to dismiss any persuasive ideas she might offer. Gay marriage opponents aren’t evil. Nor, in most cases, are they bigots. Love is patient, love is kind. Treat gay marriage opponents with kindness and tenderness, too, Sister.