Opponents of various state-sponsored religious freedom laws have been braying as loudly as the law permits in hopes of convincing the American public that the laws will be used to discriminate against gay people, and to refuse them equal access to otherwise publicly available goods and services. In the self-righteous pile-on that followed Governor Mike Spence’s signature of Indiana’s religious freedom law, business leaders, celebrities and civil society groups threatened the state with economic boycott should the law go into effect as ratified. And the liberal crowd smugly cheered as the Indiana legislature sought to “clarify” the implications of its intentionally vague legislation.
But wait a minute, Hollywood, let’s not be so smug. Let’s not pretend that gay marriage does not present a watershed moment in the evolution of societal norms. Just 20 years ago, President Bill Clinton, a Democrat, signed into law the Defense of Marriage Act, which explicitly defined marriage as a contract between a man and a woman for purposes of taxes and federal benefits. In what at the time was deemed a major concession to gay rights, states were permitted to pass laws observing so-called “civil unions” between same-sex couples.
But, alas, as many conservative pundits predicted at the time, this would prove to be a slippery slope. It would be no time at all before the homosexual community came knocking again, this time seeking to have their unions officially declared “marriages.” And so they did, beginning in Vermont, which, faced with the difficult choice between amending the equal protection language in its state constitution or denying access to the institution of marriage to same-sex couples, capitulated and became the first state to recognize “civil unions.”
For a fairly small, liberal and ethnically homogeneous state like Vermont, the social upheaval caused by the inclusion of same-sex couples within the rubric of marriage was relatively easy to absorb. Life went on without much complaint. But is what is good for Vermont necessarily good for a large, Bible Belt state like Mississippi or Alabama, where religious life forms a central thread in the social fabric? People who live in Washington, D.C. and on the coasts, where the population is more cosmopolitan and less grounded in religious life than in the South, may have trouble understanding the perceived harm that the sudden introduction of gay marriage would cause to people in those states.
Many forget that religious freedom laws are not the result of the Christian right going out and looking for a fight. There are no Christians going into bedrooms or sneaking undercover into gay bars trying to legislate away individuals’ privacy rights. No, these laws are a defense against what many Christians see as a coordinated gay rights offensive. It is not merely about tolerating one’s fellow man or even providing equal protection under the law. It is about forcing someone else’s lifestyle into what many believe to be one of the last remaining sacred places in our society.
This isn’t about public accommodation or equal access to critical resources like education, medical care or government services. This isn’t about having access to modern conveniences like groceries, or take-out food, or Netflix. In fact, you’d have to go pretty far out of your way to find a florist or a wedding cake baker who would refuse service on religious grounds, and even then you would have plenty of alternative options. These small business owners are not refusing service because it is good for their business. It isn’t in most cases. It is because as a matter of conscience, they are committed to supporting what they see as a religious institution in keeping with their faith and beliefs.
And before the chortling starts again in earnest, consider that this is a very difficult issue for states to manage. After all, even Apple, the haughty, holier-than-thou mega-corporation who can do no harm — despite its almost entirely slave-labor-based Chinese work force, or its conflict-mineral-sourced nanotechnology — is far, far away from allowing transgender workers to choose which bathrooms they want to use. And even the venerable liberal stalwart state of Vermont is not about to put so-called “transgender” men into women’s prisons. So let’s not pretend that the issue of forcing religious-oriented businesses to serve marriage ceremonies that drastically deviate from their faith is not a difficult societal problem that will take time to work through and ultimately mediate — no matter what one’s religious, gender or sexual orientation.
At the base of the issue is a case of two vastly different conceptions of social norms. In some societies, it is legal for a grown man to marry a girl as young as 7 years old. Liberals are famous for making cause celebres of escaped child brides, declaiming the practice as barbaric and perverse. Many Christians hold similar beliefs about homosexual marriage. And it doesn’t necessarily mean that they believe gay people shouldn’t have the right to marry. But it does mean that they would prefer not to participate in a gay wedding (or a child wedding, or a nude wedding, or a sadomasochist-themed wedding, for that matter). They believe that they should not be subject to litigation or being put out of business for this fact alone.
The religious freedom issue is not about compassion or tolerance or the right of people of any sexual orientation to enjoy the full benefits of American citizenship. It is not about denying civil rights to any segment of the population. But it is about protecting the freedom to worship and act in accordance with one’s religious beliefs.
Religious freedom legislation may be an important facet of an overall civil society in which there is ample room for believers and non-believers alike to live in peace and harmony. Let’s not ruin it by overrunning the mark here. The implications of doing so could be potentially counterproductive to the very spirit of tolerance that religious freedom opponents claim to be advancing.
• Armstrong Williams is sole owner/manager of Howard Stirk Holdings TV broadcast stations and executive editor of American CurrentSee.