Same-sex marriage and religious liberty, continued
Michael Peppard March 16, 2014 - 4:16pm
Since the controversy about (and subsequent veto of) Arizona's SB 1062, a pointed debate in newspapers and blogs has ensued about civil rights vs. religious liberty. Ross Douthat's New York Times column expressed frustration that religious dissenters are not being permitted to "negotiate terms of surrender" in a culture "war."
What makes this response particularly instructive is that such bills have been seen, in the past, as a way for religious conservatives to negotiate surrender — to accept same-sex marriage’s inevitability while carving out protections for dissent. But now, apparently, the official line is that you bigots don’t get to negotiate anymore.
But is this best construed as a war, or does a less threatening metaphor suffice? Perhaps we're not fighting an apocalyptic war of religion vs. secularism, but instead tinkering with our delicate balance of Constitutional rights.
In a follow-up post, Douthat implores certain advocates for gay rights who also strongly support religious liberty, such as Andrew Sullivan, to speak more loudly in defense of religious conscience protections.
Meanwhile, Sullivan and Rod Dreher got into an uncharacteristically testy exchange about whether the new status of Christian orthodoxy entails minority status, with dissent that gets "demonized."
What is certain is that public opinion on gay marriage has changed faster than on any other moral issue in the history of public opinion polling. It is no surprise that laws have been hastily proposed and tempers have flared. Things really are changing faster on this issue than even the most ardent supporters (e.g., Sullivan) had envisioned. For this reason, after the Arizona law was vetoed, he wrote:
If we value our freedom as gay people in living our lives the way we wish, we should defend that same freedom to sincere religious believers and also, yes, to bigots and haters. You do not conquer intolerance with intolerance. As a gay Christian, I’m particularly horrified by the attempt to force anyone to do anything they really feel violates their conscience, sense of self, or even just comfort. ... We’re living in a time of drastic change with respect to homosexuality. It is perfectly understandable that many traditional-minded people, especially in the older age brackets, are disconcerted, upset and confused. So give them some space; instead of suing them, talk to them. Try seeing things from their point of view. Appeal to their better nature as Christians.
I've followed these conversations with great interest, and I'm convinced they need not deteriorate into a culture "war" with winners and losers, as Douthat's and Dreher's writings suggest. Is it possible to find a middle ground of accommodation?
In today's Washington Post, I have an op-ed that explores just that question. Thus far in the debates, both the civil rights side and the religious liberty side have joined together different kinds of wedding vendors (cake bakers, florists, photographers) into one group. But perhaps finer distinctions among different kinds or degrees of engagement with an event are necessary in this new moment for American pluralism. Some of these vendors don't attend the event, some do; some don't help plan it, some do; some of the events are enacted under civil law only, some are richly religious ceremonies.
As I say in the article, "We may need more reflection on what the law could force a citizen to do at a wedding or other religious ritual." In a country of almost unfathomable diversity -- one with strong anti-discrimination and religious liberty traditions -- the fine-tuning process is worth the effort.
Drawing distinctions to maintain a precise balance of religious conscience protections and publicly accommodated civil rights is neither a sign of fastidious hairsplitting nor a distraction from prophetically proclaimed truths on either side. Rather, it is necessary to preserve and perfect our experiment in diversity.
The editors gave the print edition the snappy title, "Many layers in the gay-wedding cake." But if you don't have access to the newsprint, a digital version (under a different title) is here.