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Coexist. Or Else

This is no better than the bigotry the gay community had to deal with for decades.

I stole the above headline from a tweet that perfectly reflects the intent of the AZ-1062 debate. We’re at the point where hurting one group’s increasingly brittle feelings is a more egregious transgression against America than denying another group its freedom of association or religious liberty – or, for that matter, any other antiquated notion that conflicts with a secular worldview.

Which, incidentally, is also my personal worldview.

Ginning up moral panic about “Jim Queer” reminds me a lot of the ginned up moral panic that hare-brained social conservatives who liken gay marriage to animal-human nuptials occasionally peddle. But worse. Worse because these analogies are widely accepted rather than widely laughed at. “Religious Liberty Is a Just Cause—Except When It’s Used to Justify Intolerance” is the headline of a Ron Fournier piece, not in Mother Jones or the Huffington Post, but in National Journal, which features, I kid you not, a picture of paratroopers in full battle gear escorting young black girls to school in Little Rock, Arkansas, in 1957. This was the sort of inane analogy we saw across the media.

Is Arizona really one bill away from President Obama sending armed escorts so gays can walk through the streets of Phoenix unmolested? Are the gay men and women of Arizona one bill way from being denied the right to vote? You’d think so. Fournier likens Orval Eugene Faubus, the six-term Democratic governor of Arkansas, who deployed government force to deny black citizens equal protection, to Arizona business owners who haven’t discriminated against anyone and have no power to force anyone to do anything.

Actually, it’s Fournier who supports using government to compel religious Christians to participate in a ceremony that conflicts with their convictions — also, incidentally, orthodox Jewish photographers or Muslim caterers — or lose their businesses. Like the segregationists’ bogus concerns over public “safety,” Fournier suggests that belief in things like sacramental marriage is probably just a loophole for bigotry.

Now, it’s not my business — or his — to parse the beliefs of people or bore into their souls, any more than it’s the business of believers to explain how my atheism works. (Though, I should mention, that most e-mails reacting to my non-belief from social conservatives over the years have only gently attempted to persuade me that God loves me, while most e-mails reacting to my defense of religious freedom have speculated on my furtive bigotry and intolerance.) What the media should have been parsing was the bill itself — a bill that I suspect Fournier and others in the negligent media didn’t take the time to read.

The bill was a small modification on the federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act, and it never mentioned same-sex couples. Illya Shaprio, a libertarian, a supporter of marriage equality, and a constitutional lawyer, boiled down the law in a useful explanatory piece at Cato:

SB 1062 does nothing more than align state law with the federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act (which passed the House unanimously, the Senate 97-3, and was signed by President Clinton in 1993). That is, no government action can “substantially burden” religious exercise unless the government uses “the least restrictive means” to further a “compelling interest.” This doesn’t mean that people can “do whatever they want” — laws against murder would still trump religious human sacrifice — but it would prevent the government from forcing people to violate their religion if that can at all be avoided. Moreover, there’s no mention of sexual orientation (or any other class or category).

If the state’s authority over consumer choices continues to expand, and societal norms and demographics continue to change, and orthodox Christians find themselves as a minority, as some believe is inevitable, it’d be nice to have a serious debate about the role of the state and faith. Like my colleague Ben Domenech, I trust markets and people over government to regulate bigotry and “bigotry.” The problem is that secular liberals aren’t content with coexistence.

I’ve been writing pro-gay marriage posts since I became a columnist at the Denver Post a decade ago. And though I don’t believe any of those columns or interviews with many gay Coloradans made much of a difference in the world, I do realize I was exceedingly gullible in believing that any group would be content simply being “left alone.” It’s clear that coexisting doesn’t only mean having the freedom to take part in the civil institution of marriage, but it also means compelling others into participation and acceptance.

As Will Cain pointed out, the Arizona bill kerfuffle soon became an excuse to hunt for homophobes — some real, most imagined. I know too many religious Americans — Catholics, Evangelicals, Lutherans, and many other denominations — whose generosity and patience have humbled me. It’s nothing more than contemptible bullying to paint entire communities, whose faith has been built on thousands of years of theological and intellectual history, as dogmatic bigots. It’s no better, in fact, than the bigotry the gay community had to deal with for decades.

David Harsanyi is a Senior Editor at The Federalist and author of the forthcoming The People Have Spoken (and They Are Wrong): The Case Against Democracy. Follow him on Twitter.

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