A New Cause for Secularists: Protecting Religious Liberty

Though the logic of same-sex marriage today seems obvious, this was not necessarily the case ten (or even five) years ago. To almost everyone back then, that same-sex marriage could possibly be so widely embraced across the United States (as it is in 2012) was a far-fetched, almost frivolous idea.

Yet, on November 6th, same-sex marriage was ratified in one form or another by popular referenda in four states. The Supreme Court is expected to rule in favor of the legality of same-sex marriage in the coming year or two. All this and more constitutes a momentous political/cultural shift.

Those who toiled in the trenches of LGBT rights activism when it was not such a popular proposition hardly know what to do with themselves now. The public opinion transformation they worked so tirelessly to foster has occurred — with historically-blindsiding speed. Personally, I welcome this trend.

But those who cheer the onset of legal same-sex marriage in America must also remain cognizant of the alienation and fear felt by many others throughout the country. Riled up by fevered pastors and Republican Party doomsayers, a large number of professing Christians hold the sincere belief that their religious liberties will be trampled on if same-sex marriage becomes legal where they live. We know this worry to be wrongheaded. There need not be any discordance between legal same-sex marriage and the protection of religious liberties, as the non-cataclysmic arrangements in states ranging from New York to Iowa to New Hampshire have proven.

Where some Christians (especially Evangelicals) overreach is when they demand arbitrary exemptions from secular law — e.g., they wish to lawfully discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation in matters of public accommodation. Evangelicals often insist that because they are merely acting out their religious beliefs, they ought to have this legal right.

Well, their reasoning falls short. We can imagine a member of some minority religious group claiming that he killed toddlers because his religious beliefs mandated doing so. And that may well be true, but the religious mandate wouldn’t exempt him from suffering legal consequences for his actions. This is obviously a much more extreme example than the Evangelical who demands the legal right to discriminate in matters of public accommodation, but the principle nonetheless holds.

That’s not to say that all complaints of infringement on religious liberty are without merit. Last summer, some liberals in elected office sullied themselves when they threatened to deploy state power against private citizens on account of the personal religious beliefs espoused by those citizens. The president of Chick-fil-A was asked a question about same-sex marriage and responded by outlining his “traditional,” Bible-based view, prompting a ridiculous meltdown. After pressure from both “left” and “right” media, the government officials in question relented, while Chick-fil-A received an avalanche of profitable PR.

Throughout history, there has been an unfortunate tendency for those in the majority to discriminate against those in the minority, or at least fail to protect their rights. Those who affirm the moral primacy of “traditional” marriage will soon become the minority. Thus, they deserve all the legal protections that would be afforded to any other religious minority. The ACLU has a long history of defending such rights, despite the caricatures routinely conjured up by right-wing demagogues.

But while Christians should expect their liberties to be vigorously protected, they should not expect extra privileges.

Same-sex marriage is no longer an abstract future prospect to be speculated about. It is now reality in huge swaths of the country, and the pace of its acceptance is only going to keep growing. Christians ought to realize, if only for their own sake, that of course they will be allowed to express their beliefs as usual, even if the neighborhood town clerk’s office issues marriage licenses to same-sex couples.

Rather than “religious liberty” per se, the real issue for many Christians appears to be the cultural degradation they take to be signaled by same-sex marriage’s rise; society has sanctioned homosexual relationships, so their thinking goes, and therefore it has also approved of homosexual sex, homosexuals child-rearing — the whole kit and caboodle.

Secularists can empathize with how this rapid evolution in mores might upset and frighten those Christians who sincerely believe that marriage — a pillar institution of any thriving community — is on the verge of being destroyed for all eternity.

About michaeltracey

Journalist based in Brooklyn, New York. Follow me on Twitter at @mtracey.


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