American Opinion Is Not Binary
Professor Douglas Laycock, in his article “The Only Way Forward” (January), discusses religious liberty and the Respect for Marriage Act with some degree of optimism. However, he misconstrues the political values of Roman Catholics in the United States when he implies that Roman Catholic Republicans “oppose all gay rights legislation” while Roman Catholic Democrats “oppose all religious liberty legislation” because of concerns about “gay rights, contraception, and abortion.” These three areas of controversy cannot be combined in this analysis—they are each distinct. Specifically, as to gay rights, recent polling by Gallup and others has determined that at least 69 percent of U.S. Roman Catholics support same-sex marriage. For this reason, one may conclude that not just Democratic Roman Catholics but, instead, also a very considerable number of Republican Roman Catholics favor legislation (and court rulings) protective of gay rights and same-sex marriage.
Also of great concern, Professor Laycock posits a position specifically with regard to refusals of service to certain customers in commercial settings that all should challenge: he denies “that governments at any level have the same strong interest in suppressing traditional religious practices that they have in suppressing racist practices.” First, businesses such as cake bakers and computer designers that seek to deny such services to same-sex couples in the secular world are not engaged in “traditional religious practices.” More importantly, what Laycock incorrectly argues is that gay individuals are not entitled to Fourteenth Amendment equal protection of the law to the same extent as persons of color. If the Fourteenth Amendment existed only to protect the rights and privileges of persons of color, its language would have so specified. Professor Laycock’s argument on this point is unfortunately insidious and unsupportable, although the current conservative majority of the Supreme Court may nevertheless countenance it.
Pearl River, N.Y.
Douglas Laycock Replies:
It is true that most Americans, including most Catholics, support the legalization of same-sex marriage. But I was talking about the behavior of elected officials. Most Republican legislators, of whatever faith, have opposed all gay-rights legislation, and most Democratic legislators, of whatever faith, have opposed all religious-liberty legislation unless it explicitly excludes claims of conscientious objection to providing contraception or assisting with abortions or with same-sex weddings. The Respect for Marriage Act is a promising break in this gridlock.
Similarly, it was Congress, not me, who said that governments do not “have the same strong interest in suppressing traditional religious practices that they have in suppressing racist practices.” The express congressional findings in the Respect for Marriage Act call on courts and governments to respect conservative religious views on same-sex marriage.
But I agree with Congress on this point, even though I didn’t say so. The LGBT community has suffered egregious discrimination in the United States until very recently, and to some extent it still does. But race is unique in our constitutional history. The LGBT community did not experience 250 years of slavery, and it did not require a Civil War, 750,000 deaths, three constitutional amendments, and 160 years and counting of efforts to enforce those amendments to achieve freedom from bondage and some semblance of equality for that community. Of course, the equal-protection clause protects the LGBT community, but the government’s compelling interest in stamping out discrimination reaches further with respect to race than with respect to LGBT rights.
Same-sex couples are entitled to fully participate in the marketplace and to buy all the goods and services that they need or desire without surrendering or concealing their sexual orientation. Conservative religious believers are also entitled to fully participate in the marketplace and to pursue their chosen occupation without surrendering their faith commitments. Both groups’ rights can be fully protected in most cases. It is only when a conservative believer has a local monopoly, so that comparable goods or services are not available from another conveniently available seller, that the government has a compelling interest in overriding the believer’s conscientious objection to assisting with the celebration of a same-sex wedding.
Time Well Spent
Thanks to Clifford Thompson for a crisp and cogent analysis of the venerable Wendell Berry’s latest book (“One or Many?,” January). At eighty-eight, Berry is apparently still vibrant and able to contribute eloquently to exigent conversations and controversies afoot in contemporary America. A bighearted man with an abiding poetic temperament, Berry invites all who encounter his new book to ponder their place in the teeming salmagundi of today’s conflicting and often heated perspectives. I suspect he yearns deeply for metanoia—a collective change of heart, mind, and spirit leading to a more compassionate and charitable polity. Just how that might come about remains elusive. As we hope for such a beneficent transformation—along with the hard practical work required to make such a more irenic reality manifest here and throughout our weary globe—time spent with any writings of Berry is always time well spent indeed.