Recently, Jay Michaelson wrote a piece for The Daily Beast titled “The ‘Religious Liberty’ Bullies and Their Fight Against LGBT Equality.” In it, he suggests that those who oppose same-sex marriage for religious reasons are the same as the racists who opposed desegregation laws. He calls those who protect religious liberty, and who therefore are willing to stick up for the rights of religious people who oppose same-sex marriage, insincere and “racist,” as well. “Today is a different age—but the players, and the rhetoric, are the same,” he states. Later on, he says that defenders of religious liberty are “simply repurposing an old, racist rhetoric to fight the same social battles as always.”
There are three points to be made here. One, there can be no comparison between the fight for racial equality and the movement for same-sex marriage. Two, supporting the traditional definition of marriage is not the same (or even akin) to supporting institutionalized racism. Three, concerns about religious liberty are both sincere and valid, especially regarding the social trends Michaelson discusses in both his article and a related report he recently released.
My first point is that there can be no comparison between the fight for racial equality and the movement supporting same-sex marriage. To begin with, race occupies a singular place in our country’s history and laws. Our country fought a bloody Civil War and passed three separate Constitutional Amendments to rid our society of the injustice that was slavery. The segregation laws that followed were ugly remnants of a culture of racial slavery, and they were immoral and unjust. They defied the American promise “that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” Black Americans were enslaved, literally deprived of their liberty, often robbed of life, and denied the opportunity to pursue happiness. Segregation laws were a legal statement of inequality. No other law in American history spells indignity and injustice like they did, and no other law so explicitly rings false to our country’s founding principles.
Now, for the second point. Applying the racism of segregation-era America to today’s “social battles” does not make for a compelling comparison. To state what should be obvious, not all racists oppose same-sex marriage, and not all who oppose same-sex marriage are racists. To say otherwise is disrespectful and frankly ludicrous. No reasonable person is advocating “segregation” between the opposite-sex attracted population and the same-sex attracted population. I don’t need to go into detail on this point. It should be enough for readers to simply think of their own family, friends, and acquaintances—some of whom, no doubt, are uncertain about or against same-sex marriage—and realize that pairing “racist” with “opposed to same-sex marriage” means labeling many reasonable people as outright bigots. That kind of accusation has heavy consequences and is dangerous to healthy discourse.
Marriage, as it stands and has stood for centuries, is not an institution that was driven into existence by bigotry, or constructed to deny some right to same-sex partners. People who oppose same-sex marriage do so for a variety of reasons. There are many who oppose same-sex marriage for religious reasons, and others for reasons grounded in history, philosophy, and our country’s Constitution. What traditional marriage supporters generally want is to uphold a centuries-old definition of marriage as between one man and one woman. It is a fixed definition. They see marriage as unique and unchanging, valuable because of (and contingent on) its singular male-female union, and meaningless without it.
My third point refers to the idea that those who are concerned about religious liberty rights in and around same-sex marriage are covertly advancing some right-wing agenda. This is misleading, false, and insulting. Religious liberty is a real, fundamental right, first in our Constitutional Amendments. It’s what allows a man to be a conscientious objector, or a church to choose its own minister. In general, it’s what protects religious people who hold views that are out of political favor. Michaelson admits that intellectuals and politicians on both ends of the political spectrum support religious liberty. He simply thinks that religious liberty is much more limited than it is or ever has been.
As the recent (large) batch of cases against the Health and Human Services contraceptive mandate demonstrates, America has a diverse and principled religious population of citizens willing to fight for the right to express their faith in all aspects of life. That some, like Michaelson, don’t agree that buying contraception for others violates a person’s faith, does not suddenly appease the troubled consciences. Those who advocate strong conscience protections—whether from a contraceptive mandate or from federal recognition of same-sex marriage—do so sincerely.
We can all agree that the topic of same-sex marriage draws intense emotions from both sides. But those emotions do not justify branding people who disagree with us as liars or bigots. That’s a cheap way to silence dissenters, when there is real and substantive debate to be had. It’s also a grave insult to honest, truth-seeking individuals, and a violation of the principles of American society. All people should be free to explore and define their beliefs. And all should be free to speak, act, vote and advocate according to their beliefs.