Nice news

Nice news July 6, 2009

I started working at the paper in Delaware in 2001 and every year since then they've introduced legislation to include sexual orientation in the First State's antidiscrimination laws.

Those bills never passed. "Discrimination against gays still legal in Del.," read the headline on the paper's Web site, year after year after year.

That headline was celebrated, each time, by Christian conservative groups who were always ferociously opposed to the idea that gays, lesbians, bisexuals and transgendered persons should enjoy the same legal protections as everyone else in the state. Those groups liked to quote Leviticus to support the idea that homosexuality was an "abomination" to God. The idea, I guess, was that homosexuals were sinners and thus real, true Christians were therefore obliged to ensure that it remained perfectly legal to deny them access to housing or employment.

It's tempting to respond in kind, to say, I'll see your Leviticus and raise you a Deuteronomy:

Do not have two differing weights in your bag — one heavy, one light. Do not have two differing measures in your house — one large, one small. You must have accurate and honest weights and measures … For the Lord your God detests anyone who does these things, anyone who deals dishonestly.

In other words, no fair not being fair. You can't have one price for one group of people and a different price for a different group. You can't have one housing market or one job market for one group of people and exclude other people from that market — that's differing weights and measures, something the Lord your God detests. Inequality, discrimination, disenfranchisement and the dishonesty of double-dealing and double-standards turn out also to be abominations before the Lord.

And there's nothing in Deuteronomy to suggest a loophole that says it's OK to have differing weights in your bag so long as the short-changing one is for homosexuals. The Bible says, unambiguously, that these Delaware Christians' crusade in defense of legal discrimination is abominable and detestable.

So what we have here is a theological dispute — a disagreement over the interpretation and meaning of the scripture. I'm confident I can win this argument, but before we get bogged down in the theological details of such a dispute, allow me to point out the most important thing to remember about all such arguments: They don't matter. Not even a little bit. Because none of what any of us thinks about the interpretation and meaning of the scripture is in any way relevant to the question before the legislature, a wholly secular body charged only with the wholly secular matters of law and justice.

This is true even when the Legislature itself seems to forget this and starts to act like an amateur version of the college of cardinals, as the paper reported:

Supporters and opponents of the bill disagreed on what it means to be "Christian." They argued about what constitutes "discrimination" and "sin." They tussled over whether homosexuality is a "lifestyle" or whether lesbians can be "made" by other lesbians.

Happily, the Legislature refrained from ruling on most of those questions and we were spared from the flagrantly unconstitutional and laughably incompetent spectacle of lawmakers dictating the official meaning of "Christian" or "sin." They eventually remembered who they were and what their job is and returned to matters on which they actually have some jurisdiction and responsibility, such as whether or not it should be legal to exclude one particular minority group from legal protections enjoyed by everyone else in the state of Delaware.

And even more happily, the majority of these lawmakers came to the conclusion that legal discrimination is an oxymoron — that differing weights and measures, differing laws and statutes, were not legally or constitutionally defensible. They decided that legal protection from discrimination was a right enjoyed by all Delawareans and not just a privilege enjoyed by the heterosexual majority.

And so, finally, after eight years, I got to write a new headline. Discrimination against this particular minority is no longer legal in Delaware.

This step toward a more just standard of justice and a fairer sense of fairness is being lamented by many of those same Leviticus-loving groups, including "the Sussex County Community Organized Regiment, a new group of conservative residents concerned about what they consider the nation's increasingly liberal bent."

One leader of the group, Eric Bodenweiser, says he regrets that their defense of legal discrimination has led others to view them as not nice:

Bodenweiser said he regrets the growing chasm between people on either side of the debate over homosexuality.

At one point Wednesday, Bodenweiser struck up a conversation with two women in the Legislative Hall cafeteria. He expressed his views on homosexuality without realizing they were a lesbian couple.

"One of them said, 'I can't believe that you think God hates me,'" Bodenweiser said. "Those girls were telling me I was a hater and a bigot, but I'm not. I'm a nice guy."

So OK, let's set aside the theological arguments and the debates over scriptural interpretation and just focus on this matter of niceness.

How, exactly, is the defense of legal discrimination compatible with being "a nice guy"? How is it nice to insist that landlords be legally entitled to refuse to rent to one particular minority? How is it nice to fight for employers right to fire members of that minority for no reason other than that they are members of that minority?

This word nice seems to have come to mean something strange and hard to pin down. If we simply consider the definitions of the words, then it would seem possible to treat someone fairly without being as nice to them as one might be. But the opposite would seem impossible — we cannot treat someone unfairly and still be nice to them. Yet as the example of our "nice guy" above shows, the word is constantly being used in this second, impossible sense by people staunchly defending injustice while just as staunchly insisting that this doesn't mean they're not "nice" people.

So let me say something here that ought to be blindingly obvious, but which apparently still needs to be pointed out: Injustice isn't nice.

That's not the biggest problem with injustice, of course, which is why, for example, Moses didn't go to Pharaoh and tell him to be nicer. ("You have enslaved my people. That's rude. It's impolite, unkind and tacky. …") No, he went to Pharaoh and demanded justice. Pharaoh's response, of course, was to crack down even harder, demanding that the slaves make bricks without straw. But at least Pharaoh had the decency not to pretend that he could redouble his injustice while still being "a nice guy."

Anyway, good news from Delaware. A minority previously excluded has now been included in the legal protections enjoyed by the majority. That's nice. But more importantly, that's just.

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