Congratulations, Iowa!

Congratulations, Iowa! April 6, 2009

Last week, friends of equality had some very welcome news: the Supreme Court of Iowa has unanimously struck down a ban on gay marriage in that state. No blue state this, no liberal haven like California or Massachusetts that is so often demonized by conservatives and religious right bigots: Iowa is part of the mythologized “American heartland”, a midwestern swing state whose electoral votes went to George W. Bush in 2004 (although Barack Obama won it in 2008, and Democrats currently control both houses of the legislature). Iowa is now poised to become the third American state, after Massachusetts and Connecticut, to have full marriage equality. (A marriage-equality bill recently passed both houses of the Vermont state legislature, but may fall just short of overturning a promised veto by Vermont’s Republican governor.)

This resounding victory shows how the tide of history is turning in our favor. Despite setbacks, the idea of marriage equality is steadily gaining momentum across the country, and is beginning to take hold not just in coastal blue states, but in areas that have historically been conservative.

Even better, because of the restrictive nature of Iowa’s amendment process, an anti-gay-marriage amendment to the state constitution could not be ratified any earlier than 2012 – and that’s assuming such an amendment was approved by the state legislature this session, and that looks unlikely. This means that this ruling will have time to sink in; the people of Iowa will have time to get to know their gay and lesbian neighbors and realize that their marriages in no way threaten society. That’s always the best way to counteract prejudice: to make visible and to humanize the people whom bigots would prefer to portray as alien, fearful creatures who threaten our way of life.

Predictably, religious conservatives have begun their familiar squalling about “judicial activism“, a phrase that means nothing other than “a decision I disagree with”. As always, they refuse to recognize that the American republic is in many ways an explicitly counter-majoritarian system, one where mob rule or popular prejudice cannot take away from the rights of all people to equal treatment under the law. Most importantly, we live in a secular nation, where laws cannot be based solely on religious belief, and must be justified by appealing to a valid state interest.

There was one religious-right bigot whose complaint I wanted to focus on, however, and that’s Rod Dreher, who laments that gay marriage was “forced on Iowa” by this decision. What he means by this is unclear. Is anyone being forced to get a gay marriage? Of course not. Is anyone being forced to approve of it, or even to like it? Obviously, the answer is again no. What he seems to mean – the only thing this even could mean, as far as I can see – is that Dreher and his ilk are being “forced” to allow other people to have equal rights, and can no longer invoke their religious beliefs to tyrannize others and control their lives under color of law. If so, I’m glad, and I hope we see a lot more of that “forcing”.

But on to Dreher’s complaint:

The lawyer said that as soon as homosexuality receives constitutionally protected status equivalent to race, then “it will be very hard to be a public Christian.” By which he meant to voice support, no matter how muted, for traditional Christian teaching on homosexuality and marriage. To do so would be to set yourself up for hostile work environment challenges, including dismissal from your job, and generally all the legal sanctions that now apply to people who openly express racist views.

I don’t know what “legal sanctions” Dreher imagines there are for racists. When last I checked, we still live in America, where the First Amendment protects the expression of all views, even unpopular ones. Of course, businesses and other private associations can maintain their own standards, and if you decide to harass gay coworkers or use the workplace as a forum for proselytization or religious discrimination, then your employer certainly does have the right to take action against you. (Dreher also ludicrously asserts that “People who favor gay rights face no penalty for speaking their views”. Has he ever even been to most parts of America?)

Dreher’s argument essentially can be summarized as this: “I hold views that are bigoted against gays. But if society becomes more accepting and tolerant of gays, I will be ostracized and there may be repercussions in my career or my personal life. This violates my right to free speech. Therefore, the only way to protect my right to free speech is to ensure that bigoted views like mine remain in the majority and enshrined by law.”

This is what I call the fallacy of free speech: the view, common among Christian conservatives, that respecting their right to free speech requires that their opinions be agreed with and treated as true. If their prejudices aren’t in the majority, then that means that people are discriminating against them. In reality, having a right to free speech does not mean that your views will be popular, well-liked or accepted. You may even be ostracized, excluded or boycotted for speaking them. All it guarantees is that the state will not censor your views or punish you for voicing them.

More importantly: Rights for gays and rights for Christians are not a zero-sum game. Dreher takes it for granted that every expansion of gay rights means less freedom for Christians, but there is no such tradeoff. Granting gay people greater freedom does not in any way detract from his ability to believe exactly as he wishes, unless he believes his faith requires him to control the lives of others and force them to live according to his norms. If that is the case, then there’s indeed a tradeoff, but the fault lies not with gay and lesbian couples who only want to pursue their own conception of happiness free of interference; the fault lies with those religious theocrats who want to oppress and discriminate. They, not the gays, should recognize that their aims are evil ones and leave other people to live their lives in peace.

UPDATE (4/7): I’m very happy to say I was too pessimistic. Just days after the Iowa ruling, the Vermont legislature successfully overrode a veto from the governor to make same-sex marriage legal. Congratulations are in order! I should note for the record that Vermont is the least religious state in the U.S. by a wide margin.

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