Saturday, June 28, 2008

opening another can of worms... :-)

First substantial post in several weeks... might as well make it controversial!

A recent report on NPR discussed the possible ramifications of the CA Supreme Court's ruling in favor of gay marriage. One growing trend appears to be an intensification of the legal struggles between gay rights advocates and religious organizations. My guess is that most gay people don’t want to force people to accept them by enacting legislation. However, just as there are religious advocates who desire to push their particular moral agenda on the nation, there are also those in the GLBT community who have their own legislative agenda. And, there are just some people who are "sue-happy."

The Federal Civil Rights Act guarantees all people the right to "full and equal enjoyment of the goods, services, facilities, privileges, advantages, and accommodations of any place of public accommodation, without discrimination or segregation on the ground of race, color, religion, or national origin." (The key phrase is, of course, "any place of public accommodation") Whether everyone likes it or not, citizens of the United States have been given the freedom to live their lives as they see fit, as long as they are not harming someone else or don't directly infringe on someone else's freedom to live their lives as well.

What disturbs me are situations like the recent one in NM where a Christian photographer who refused to take marriage pictures for a gay couple was then sued, and was ordered to pay $6600 in legal fees for discrimination. Discrimination? Let’s be honest here - more or less, this lawsuit seems to be about hurt feelings. I cannot see how this, in any way, falls under the auspices of civil rights. Is it my right to never have my feelings hurt? To never have anyone refuse what I ask them to do? Does saying you disagree with someone’s behavior automatically count as discrimination?

Such a perspective suffers from terribly flawed logic: Can you imagine a world where everyone was obligated to perform any service asked of them, simply because to refuse would be "discrimination?" Would a gay photographer be content with having to take pictures of Fred Phelps' family holding their cruel "God hates fags" signs, because of "civil rights?" Or, as another person suggested, what about forcing a vegetarian to make a promotional video for a butcher shop, so as to avoid any intimation of discrimination? When everyone can claim discrimination for any reason, no one can claim discrimination for any reason.

The response, I'm sure, would be that any business which is open to the public cannot refuse services to anyone on grounds like race, sexual orientation, etc. because that is the law. (Even though sexual orientation is not explicitly addressed in the FCRA) But what I wonder is: Will forcing a photographer to take wedding pictures of a gay couple really bring about the kind of change that gay rights advocates hope for? Or is it not just a reflection of the kind of tactics that religious fundamentalists have used against gay people? Why emulate that approach?

Of course, this is a difficult ethical area to traverse, because - for example - without civil rights, Jim Crow-era restaurants could still continue to refuse service to minorities. And that would be bad - just as all bigotry is bad. But, if possible, I'd rather have the community regulate that racist behavior by putting that restaurant out of business, than have to rely on the government to make the bigots serve black people.


Bringing about a change in behavior from within the community is always preferable to having to rely on pressure from the outside to force a change in behavior. Unless it's a systemic problem, in which case the government may have to step in. And I think there have been times when that's been necessary, but I don't think that's ever the best solution. And even if there is systemic discrimination, that can only be resolved to a point, because all Americans are allowed their own freedoms, no matter how insulting, to a point. Whether we like it or not, there are still a lot of bigots out there. And they are free to be bigots.

It seems we are in the midst of a struggle between the freedom of religion and the rights of gays. In my opinion, the first thing that needs to happen is that people on both sides need to be reminded that one of these freedoms is not superior to the other in our constitution.

No matter how much believers may hate to admit it, our nation was not founded on the idea that religious freedom is superior to other kinds of personal freedom. On the other hand, despite the apparent mindset of a vast majority of our culture, my own individual freedom is not superior to the freedom of the other person. The problem, I think, is there are people on both sides who aren't willing to admit these realities. Until they do, the conflict will never be resolved properly in an ethical sense. It will continue to be resolved by legal means, and that will create further suspicion and hostility.

To impose any subjective political agenda - religious, gay, or otherwise - on the rest of the nation is contrary to the reasoning behind the founding of America. Freedom, as my friend Roy says, is a two-way street. If you expect a freedom for yourself, you have to allow it for the other person as well. That may not always be easy to accept, but it is the American way.

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