Monday, October 24, 2011

On gay marriage: Civil liberties are not a zero-sum game

I respect Rod Dreher's work on most things, even though I disagree with much of it, because he's thoughtful and eloquent and tries to think outside his own biases. Except when it comes to matters of sexuality: Then turns a bit shrill. So it is today, when he posts the story of a U.K. "housing manager" who received a demotion for criticizing gay marriage—on his own time. Says Dreher: "Move along, nothing to see here. It didn’t really happen, and if it did, this man, History’s Greatest Monster, must have deserved it for his thoughtcrime."

This is part of the argument made by Dreher—and anti-marriage conservatives more generally—that allowing gay marriage will necessarily entail a restriction on the rights of Christians to hate gay marriage. There's just one problem with the evidence they marshal in support of the argument: It's almost always from Europe, and Europe has a very different tradition with regards to civil liberties than the United States.

For example: I’m from Kansas, home to the notorious Fred Phelps family—the folks who display a kind of homophobia far beyond what’s on display in Dreher's example. And a number of family members have been employed over the years as state or county civil servants—despite the fact that the family is held in very low esteem by the community at large. The state doesn't have the right to boot them for privately held opinions—even those that are publicly expressed—that don't interfere with the performance of their duties. What's more, we're the same country where the ACLU defends the rights of racists to march in public.

This isn't to say Dreher's nightmare scenario can't happen here: We must always be vigilant in defense of our rights. But it's much, much, much less likely to happen—and it's unlikeliness makes Dreher's concerns seem desperate instead of considered. The great thing about the First Amendment is that it protects people with wildly differing—even diametrically opposed—outlooks on life. In the United States, at least, civil liberties aren't a zero-sum game. In my ideal future, homophobic old housing managers will be able to keep their opinions and their jobs in the same society in which gays, lesbians, and transgender people are free to exercise their rights to marry each other. The day can't come too soon.

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