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Maestro of Dissent: Opposing gay marriage does not a bigot make

Published: November 13, 2009
Section: Opinions


The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints on Tuesday announced its support for an anti-discrimination ordinance that would provide homosexuals with protection from housing and employment discrimination. The ordinance was ultimately approved by Salt Lake City. Although the church had issued several statements in the past declaring that it would support such measures, so long as they contained robust religious freedom protections, this was the first time the influential church actually threw its weight in favor of a specific piece of legislation.

In the wake of Proposition 8, the LDS church has acquired a reputation as homophobic and hateful. Its members have been targeted for boycotts and terminated from jobs merely for being Mormon. Its meetinghouses have been subject to graffiti and protests. A no on Proposition 8 advertisement hatefully depicted caricatures of Mormon missionaries entering to a couples house and ripping up their marriage license. A large advertisement campaign in the northeast warned that the ‘Mormons were coming’ to take away rights. These hateful tactics have to some measure discredited the gay rights cause and turned some potential supporters, such as myself, away.

Indeed, the results of this city ordinance as well as the election night contrast between the successful amendment in Maine taking away gay marriage and the successful amendment in Washington State granting robust domestic partnerships reveal that current feelings towards gay rights are much more nuanced than a simple divide of the world into a pro- and anti-rights camp. Of course, there are some virulent homophobes and they do not have my sympathy, but contrary to the writings of some such as Hoot Editor Bret Matthew last week, those that voted to oppose gay marriage do not merely need to ‘grow up.’ Indeed, they have some valid fears about the decaying state of marriage in society as well as legal protections for religious groups. Gay rights movements would be more successful if they were able to understand these fears and strive to show how their cause would actually help rather than hurt the stability of marriage.

It’s been noted that those most likely to oppose gay marriage are likely to come from states with high divorce rates, single parent households or teen pregnancies. One can be cynical and use these measures as evidence of hypocrisy, or more realistically I think one can view the struggle over ‘traditional families’ as a representation of the failure between dreams and reality. Many rightfully want to stop the collapse of families and have, rightfully in my view, linked this goal with the need to return sacredness to the concept of marriage. We have become a culture where love is treated like a magic state of being rather than a spiritual relationship that requires hard work. Kids have all too often become a disposable commodity.

Somehow, voters in every state in the nation that has voted on gay marriage are convinced that changing the definition of marriage to include homosexual pairings would further dilute the meaning of marriage. It seems that they have grabbed on to this as some way to heal all of what is very wrong in reality and ‘protect the family.’ Yet, this seems to me to be a mistaken idea. Gay marriages bring no more or less stability than heterosexual marriages, but allowing them certainly does more to promote cultural values of monogamy and stability than forbidding them. Indeed, conservatives should be reminded that a generation ago the gay rights movement rooted in the free love culture of the Castro district of San Francisco mocked the pursuit of marriage as a heterosexist delusion. The desire for marriage rights is profoundly a conservative one. Indeed, the gay rights movement should in my view focus less on the individual rights aspect of gay marriage and more on this rather traditional focus on stability. Voting down gay marriage will not end the high divorce rate or lower the teen pregnancy rate. Instead, it just makes things worse.

Likewise, while some of the catastrophic legal impacts emphasized by the campaign against gay marriage are likely overstatements, it is absurd to suggest that religious expression rights will not be adversely affected at all. Churches would not be required to perform gay marriages, but they might be required to lease out space to gay couples to perform their marriages, for instance. Since legalizing gay marriage, Canada has seen many cases of arrests and law suits for actions that would clearly be considered legal under U.S. law. Yet, gay marriage is only at most a peripheral legal issue. We cannot allow, as Canada has, expansive notions of ‘hate speech,’ and political correctness to take away individual freedoms. The disturbing trend of prosecuting hate speech is rightfully viewed as an ill portend for religious individuals that hold biblical objections to gay marriage.

The broader move towards mandatory tolerance thus rightful makes individuals paranoid and less likely to compromise on matters of clear discrimination. Likewise, this is part of the reason why the distinction between civil union and marriage is treated as so significant. It seems to many that the main reason that gay marriage, rather than civil unions, is pressed is not for varying rights, but in order to force acceptance. The civil rights language of the movement rightfully gives the impression that opposition to homosexuals will soon become the equivalent of racism and carry the same legal consequences. Religious individuals fear more than anything else being told that they can no longer express their biblically based viewpoint freely in society without liability. We must make a promise and a commitment that acceptance and respect will not become mandated.

This brings me back to the referendums and Salt Lake City’s ordinance. The referendum in Washington and the vote in Salt Lake City have gained religious backing in large measure because legislatures in the state expressly worked to protect religious protections. The Maine legislation also was initially successful in passing because of attempts to do so, but fears of religious persecution were able to convince many to vote for the repeal referendum. Making it clear that religious speech and association ought to be protected is the kind of light that will disinfect some of the false rumors and allow voters to truly evaluate the costs and benefits of gay marriage. We can also see that it will take time for voters to fully evaluate these claims and come to these conclusions. Expecting instant results and change will only result in additional feeling like the goal of a whole movement is to impose its ideas and values rather than the actually conservative goal of preserving strong families.