Civil Liberties

Religious-Right Homophobes Whine That They're Being Oppressed

It's important to remember that we are talking about people opposing core civil rights for American citizens.

Maggie Gallagher, who has devoted much of her professional life to maintaining separate but decidedly unequal accomodations for gays and lesbians, is very concerned about Americans' individual rights. Mostly, she's worried about the “right” of religious conservatives dwelling on the wrong side of history to express their bigotry openly, without having to face the scorn of more enlightened citizens.

Gallagher, a syndicated columnist, is the former president of the National Organization for Marriage (NOM) and current head of the Institute for Marriage and Public Policy (a group that lobbies against marriage equality). She is best known for writing favorably of the Bush administration's “Healthy Marriage Initiative” without disclosing that she was receiving tens of thousands of dollars from the Department of Health and Human Services to promote the policy at the time.

Her latest effort for NOM is the Marriage Anti-Defamation Alliance, launched recently with some fanfare on the right. Gallagher told the National Review that the new group would combat, “an emerging trend we are hearing about: people losing jobs or other economic opportunities because they have written, spoken, donated, or otherwise peacefully exercised their core civil rights on behalf of marriage as the union of husband and wife.”

Claiming the mantle of an oppressed minority carries real power – the power to shame, and ultimately the ability to shape public policy. For years, the Right, having lost the battle against African American civil rights in the 1950s and 1960s, has sought to turn the tables and portray themselves as the target of bigotry, and their vehicle of choice is the supposed religious perscution of conservative evangelicals. David Limbaugh, Rush's less heralded brother, even wrote an infamously bad book titled, Persecution: How Liberals are Waging War Against Christians.

It's the stuff of Fox News' annual holiday celebration of the supposed war on Christmas, which by and large centers on retailers having the temerity to wish their customers – who, one presumes, adhere to any number of faiths – a generic "happy holidays" rather than a good, all-American "Merry Christmas." It's the justification of choice for a rash of “conscience clauses” that allow health-care providers to refuse to fill prescriptions for birth control if they believe contraception is sinful.

The narrative is built on anecdotes – some over-zealous councilman doesn't know the Supreme Court has ruled that religious elements in holiday displays are perfectly OK, orders the creche removed from a town square and a full-blown freak-out over “political correctness run amok” ensues.

When the National Review's Kathryn Lopez asked Gallagher, “Who is Frank Turek and why should every American care to know him?” she was happy to paint him as a martyr for the cause.

Frank’s day job is leadership seminars for Fortune 500 companies. He also runs a ministry and has written a book against same-sex marriage titled Correct, Not Politically Correct: How Same-sex Marriage Hurts Everyone.

For many years Frank Turek has done seminars for Cisco, among many other companies. A student who attended his class Googled his name, found out he opposed same-sex marriage and said “I’m going to get Frank fired because he doesn’t represent Cisco values.” And this student succeeded.

A few weeks later Frank Turek was told by a Bank of America executive that his book opposing gay marriage meant he would not be asked to do a seminar again at Bank of America.

Gallagher portrays this as a tale of civil rights being trampled – she simply wants “all sides of the gay marriage debate [to] feel free to participate peacefully in the democratic process without fear of threats, harassment, or retaliation.” But she gives the true game away later in the interview. When asked if she could see “a scenario where same-sex marriage is legal but religious liberty is firmly protected?” Gallagher responds, “In some alternate universe maybe, where 'marriage equality' was not the express goal of gay-marriage advocates.” So gays and lesbians pushing for equal treatment from the state is by definition an infringement on Christian conservatives' “religious liberty.”

Of course, Frank Turek's Constitutional right to say and write what he pleases is in no danger – there are no thought police after him. But Gallagher apparently wants him to enjoy an additional "special right" that appears nowhere in any Constitution: the right not only to say offensive things, but to do so without others taking offense.

It's worth noting that Turek's tale of “oppression” flies in the face of another deeply cherished conservative principle. Last fall, then-senate-candidate Rand Paul, R-Kentucky, created a modest controversy when he said he would have opposed the Civil Rights Act had he been in Congress at the time. Paul insisted that he abhored racial discrimination, but the government had no right regulating who private businesses choose to serve. The market, according to Paul and many others on the Right, would eventually have applied massive pressure against the Jim Crow system.

Turek works under contract, and private corporations, having freely decided they didn't want to be associated with his brand of intolerance, simply didn't renew his contract. It's not organized repression, it's the free market at work; in this case, the “marketplace of ideas” has spoken.

It's important to step back for a moment for a reality check, to remember that we are talking about people opposing core civil rights for American citizens. Prior to the Supreme Court's 2003 ruling in Lawrence v Texas, “sodomy” was a crime in some states, and the sole justification for denying the LGBT community the equal protection under the law that's guaranteed by the 14th Amendment – the only basis – was that those who violate the law can't then turn around and seek its protection. In the aftermath of Lawrence, the issue boils down to whether the state should be allowed to treat different groups of citizens differently – a notion that is anathema to our system of government. Either the law treats all citizens the same, regardless of race, sex, creed, how they identify themselves or whom they happen to love, or it doesn't. If it doesn't, then none of our rights are secure.

But that truth doesn't prevent the narrative that competing rights are at stake, even in the supposedly 'liberal' media. This week, the New York Times framed a story about Rose Marie Belforti, a small-town clerk who refuses to sign marriage licenses for same-sex couples, in exactly that way:

Ms. Belforti is at the heart of an emerging test case, as national advocacy groups look to Ledyard for an answer to how the state balances a religious freedom claim by a local official against a civil rights claim by a same-sex couple.

Ms. Belforti, represented by a Christian legal advocacy group based in Arizona, the Alliance Defense Fund, is arguing that state law requires New York to accommodate her religious beliefs.

“New York law protects my right to hold both my job and my beliefs,” she said in an interview last week, pausing briefly to collect $50 from a resident planning to take 20 loads of refuse to the town dump. “I’m not supposed to have to leave my beliefs at the door at my government job.”

That's true, but you must be able to perform the duties required of your job. The theological rationale for not doing so is thin. “God doesn’t want me to do this, so I can’t do what God doesn’t want me to do,” said Belforti, “just like I can’t steal, or any of the other things that God doesn’t want me to do.” She cited scripture about homosexuality being a sin to the Times reporter. But she's not being asked to approve of gay marriage, simply to sign an official state document in her capacity of town clerk. The Bible itself is explicit about “God's will” on this point; Matthew 22:21 says, “Render unto Caesar the things which are Caesar’s, and unto God the things that are God’s.” Same-sex marriage is simply the law of the land in New York State.

To the degree that a “clash of rights” does exist, the courts have traditionally looked at the real-world impact of those competing rights in evaluating which ones should prevail. Not only is equal treatment under the law a fundamental right -- and conservative Christians' right to worship as they please remains wholly intact – it's also true that stigmatizing gays and lesbians as Maggie Gallagher and her fellow travelers do carries serious consequences. Studies have shown that between 30-40 percent of LGBT youth have attempted to commit suicide (PDF).

That reality should trump the supposed “right” to be a bigot without incurring shame for it in polite society.