So the inappropriately named National Organization for Marriage has produced a television ad in opposition to marriage for same sex couples. The ad uses actors portraying people who have supposedly been adversely affected by legal recognition of same sex couples and exhorts the viewer to join the “rainbow coalition” that is saving “traditional marriage” by making sure the queers don’t get legal recognition. The thrust of the ad is that same sex couples haven’t been content to live their own lives, but are instead trying to make heterosexual couples change the way they live. The ad can be seen a bunch of places, including here, on the HRC website where you can also see audition tapes for the ad, underlining the point that the people speaking in the ad are actors and not the people they claim to be in the ad (e.g. one person says “I’m a California doctor” as opposed to the traditional “I’m not a doctor but I play one in homophobic commercials”).
The commercial and the National Organization for Marriage interviews associated with it have been criticized seriously by a number of groups and people, including HRC, and satirized and mocked by others, including The Colbert Show. I’ve been dissatisfied with the serious objections and haven’t found the parodies funny. Here’s a bit of why.
The main argument that Maggie Gallagher of the National Organization for Marriage has been making is that allowing same sex marriage has the result of restricting freedom of religion. The ad her organization puts out refers to three cases (as if the actors were the people involved, which is misleading, but they do refer to real events):
- A woman says something like “I’m a California doctor who had to choose between my religion and my job”
- A man says that his church was fined for not allowing gay couples to have commitment ceremonies on church property
- A woman says that as a Massachusetts parent she is oppressed because her child is taught that same sex marriage is okay in public school.
In addition, Gallagher references in interviews what she refers to as Catholic Charities of Boston being “forced” to shut down its adoption services because it would not place children with gay parents.
HRC has done a pretty good job of giving the facts of each of the three cases referenced in the ad and showing how NOM is purposely lying about them. In fact, the first two aren’t about marriage at all. To summarize:
- In the Benitez decision in California, the state’s highest court ruled that doctors cannot refuse to treat someone based on the patient’s sexual orientation, that the state’s civil rights statute protects gay men and lesbians from that kind of discrimination, just as it does people of color and other stigmatized groups, and that a religious belief that discrimination against a stigmatized group is required is not a defense. The discrimination that was practiced occurred in 1999, long before same sex marriage was briefly legal in California. The decision was based on the laws in effect at the time.
- In the NJ case, the church got a special tax break that was given only to those organizations willing to rent to the public without discrimination, and they indeed rented their beachside pavilion for parties, concerts, weddings, civil war reenactments. They refused to rent it to a same sex couple planning a civil union ceremony (same sex marriage is not legal in NJ) and were fined for not complying with their agreement to rent to any member of the public. Again, their religious belief that it’s okay to discriminate against gay people was not deemed reason enough to violate the law.
- In the Massachusetts case, it’s much more closely allied to marriage law. A parent sued to stop the school from representing different kinds of families – including same-sex parented ones – in the curriculum of the public school. She felt that her religious belief that same-sex marriage is wrong should outweigh other families’ needs to see their relationships reflected in the public school curriculum, that only families her particular religious beliefs deem okay should be given legitimacy in the public school, not all the families in the school.
HRC rightly points out the lies and misleading suggestions in NOM’s material but I think they – and the other critics – miss an important point: religious freedom is not absolute. In a civil society, people are free to practice their religions provided their religious beliefs aren’t such that they impinge on the rights of others. Racial discrimination, for example, is against the law even if your religion tells you that the races must be kept separate. Similarly, public schools belong to the public, not just members of one religious group, so they are not required to restrict all teachers and students to make the curriculum or the environment acceptable to one single religious belief. We live in a pluralistic society with multiple religious beliefs and multiple religions and their beliefs are often in contradiction with one another. Government’s proper role is not to force one religious view of marriage or anything else on all citizens, regardless of their own religious beliefs. Government’s role – in a country with an Establishment Clause – is to stay out of the way of religion, while not allowing “my religion tells me to” to be an excuse for imposing lesser civil rights on others.
Part of what bothers me about this is the huge sense of entitlement that says that the religious beliefs of Evangelical Christians should be the law of the land, while the religious – or other – beliefs of others don’t count for anything. I suppose that’s what happens when you’ve been in power for a long time and think you ought to be still, but that doesn’t make it any more palatable.
The other part that bothers me is the hypocrisy. After all, legal recognition same sex marriage is not the first legal structure that contradicts some people’s religious beliefs and that hasn’t been deemed earth shattering when it’s not applied to gay people. Maggie Gallagher, for example, says that if same sex marriage is made legal on a federal level, no Catholic could be confirmed as a federal judge. Yet somehow we manage to have lots of legal structures that contradict Catholic doctrine – including marriage after divorce – and that hasn’t stopped any Catholic judges from being confirmed, or even bothered any Catholics that we’re hearing from.
Which brings me to Catholic Charities of Boston, which until recently placed children for adoption under contracts with the State of Massachusetts. After same sex marriage became legal in Massachusetts, CCB placed children with married gay couples. Its Board of Directors – 42 Catholics, most of them lay people – voted unanimously to comply with non-discrimination laws and continue to do so. Then the Archdiocese of Boston told them they couldn’t place children with gay families and they had to ask for an exemption to Massachusetts state law in order to discriminate. Eight board members immediately resigned in protest and the others tried to work this through with the archdiocese, but when the bishops would not bend on this, CCB ceased doing adoption work rather than ask for an exemption to the law. Is this state interference in religious freedom? Or a powerful religious body requiring that an affiliated charitable organization discriminate illegally against the conscience of its independent board and the law of the state it operates in and takes money from to pay its staff? And tell me, why was CCB not required to refuse couples where one of them was divorced and remarried? [Info about the CCB case can be found at http://www.boston.com/news/local/articles/2006/03/11/catholic_charities_stuns_state_ends_adoptions/ and other places.]
When a “faith based organization” chooses to provide a secular function like adoption it is to my mind morally and ethically obliged to do so in a non-discriminatory way. I would certainly hope they are legally required to as well.
I think the gay organizations are trying not to rock boats by not pointing out that religious freedom doesn’t allow you to impose your religion on others. They’re retreating behind a “nothing will change – don’t worry” mentality to promote same-sex marriage. Well, I think something will change and it’s way overdue. Bigotry will no longer be enshrined in the law of the land and called “religious freedom.”