The Freedom to Care (Or Not) About Gay Marriage

By Haim Engelman

Pluralism is a hallmark of modern American society and a refrain that college students will hear innumerable times during their years in university. In this social context, pluralism represents the diversity in many aspects of society, from ethical and political philosophies to the religious, racial, and economic makeup of individuals and communities within our nation. The United States has continually become more pluralistic in its expansion of liberties for more and more demographics. As a result the pool of freedoms granted to the individual has expanded tremendously over time.

However, freedoms are diminishing in some spheres as they expand in others. Economic freedom has yielded to collectivism.  Political correctness has chilled freedom of expression.  Private individuals and institutions must have the ability to express their ideals and conduct themselves within the boundaries of their ethical principles without fear of legal or social repercussions. Society must be honest in its pluralism and grant the freedoms to believe and express to both sides of this question.

This summer, the pool of freedoms was expanded once again as the Supreme Court ruled in favor of gay marriage. Notwithstanding the questionable legal theory of the majority opinion, this ruling was not only a victory for the gay community, but purportedly for all those who wish to see freedoms granted to more and more people. However, has the overall pool of freedoms expanded as one group’s new freedoms encroach upon and limit another’s?  

Consider the recent case of the restaurant owner that, for reasons of deeply held religious conviction, refused to provide catering for a gay wedding. The personal and financial backlash for a private citizen acting within the boundaries of his religious beliefs was enormous. It will not end here. Traditional and religious institutions including places of worship, universities, and charitable establishments are on high alert, gearing up for a First Amendment showdown with gay interest organizations. Both sides have quickly turned to politicians and legislation for firepower.

This war of worldviews is riddled with intense problems. Many in the gay rights movement are under the impression that those who don’t accept gay marriage are hateful or bigoted. The idea that someone can be kind, civil, and accepting on a personal level, yet not accept a practice that he sees as counter to his beliefs is often never considered. As a result, traditional minded people who are respectful of gay people and their rights, but do not feel comfortable catering a gay wedding or the like see themselves as the victims of a national witch-hunt.

True pluralism and tolerance are accomplished when members of society can say that even if they disagree with someone else’s choices or lifestyle, they still are in favor of granting them the right to live the way they choose, provided that no one else is violated in the process. This becomes increasingly tricky as the subtleties behind what services a private individual or company should be able to render to those who oppose them become more intricate. The differentiation between what constitutes a religious, and therefore-protected objection, and what is discrimination comes about if the service assists and validates the morally objected institution. To deny serving a gay couple dinner in a restaurant is discriminatory, this is lack of acceptance of the individual, however to deny catering to a gay wedding is a different case altogether, this is the lack of acceptance of a practice that many traditional individuals and communities across the country object to.

For a person to say that someone else must accept gay marriage as ethically acceptable and therefore must agree with the law is not at all a tolerant view, it is the mirror image of those who say that gay marriage is morally wrong and should therefore be illegal. True tolerance is played out when members of society can express their personal beliefs about the ethics and morals of society without fear of repercussion for being on the unpopular side. At the same time, those who disagree on both sides of the argument must be free to practice their preferred lifestyles without fear of legal restriction.

An additional shortfall, as alluded to earlier is that the first strike, on both sides, in the post-SCOTUS struggle is the misguided effort to push legislation that is intended to protect religious institutions and individuals on the one side and to provide gay people with a bill of rights on the other.  Legislation is necessary, but it must accompany popular feeling, not dictate it, or else the result is popular resentment and widespread sidestepping of the law. Finally, all too often individuals and groups will attempt to coerce the opposition to accept them, without making it a bilateral agreement. In order to gain respect, one must give respect. This is true for individuals and entire social movements.

Groups on both sides of the issue have thrown their weight behind legislation that in typical Washington, big government fashion would take a hatchet to the issues where a scalpel is needed. Bills are being proposed with few stopping to question their unintended consequences. The democrat sponsored Equality Act places many religious institutions, charities, and adoption centers at risk, while the republican backed First Amendment Defense Act is written in a way that seems to allow discrimination against unmarried mothers.  Thoughtless, reactionary action and us versus them team thinking has hurt all who stand to gain from understanding and engaging in dialogue. While this complex social issue becomes as difficult as ever to navigate, name-calling, witch-hunts, and wanton lawsuits do nothing to foster understanding or productive conversations.

For both sides of this intricate question, the solutions and compromises will not be simple or easy; compromise rarely is. In order for one to truly be tolerant, one must accept that there are those who disagree and that is a positive for society and not a drawback. It is a blessing to live in a country where vastly opposing viewpoints are allowed and to try to silence or discredit the opposition is not true tolerance. The journey to a conclusive result will be so much more productive if organizations, parties, and the individuals who comprise of them apply the basic principles of understanding that seem to have left the collective mindset of this debate.

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