Wednesday, May 10, 2006

How same-sex marriage might affect straight people

I've been interested in gay rights issues for about eight years now and in those eight years I've read a lot of stuff from both sides of the issue, but this article by Maggie Gallagher is the very first thing I've read that actually makes an intelligent, well-thought out, concrete case for how legalizing same-sex marriage might affect straight people.

The argument, basically, is that as same-sex marriage and other non-discrimination laws for GLBT people are adopted, freedom of religion could be affected. Not in the sense that churches will suddenly be forced to marry same-sex couples or change their doctrine about the sinfulness of same-sex relationships, but in areas where the church interacts with the state. Case in point: the withdrawal of Catholic Charities of Boston from the adoption business.

To operate in Massachusetts, an adoption agency must be licensed by the state. And to get a license, an agency must pledge to obey state laws barring discrimination--including the decade-old ban on orientation discrimination. With the legalization of gay marriage in the state, discrimination against same-sex couples would be outlawed, too.

Cardinal O'Malley asked Governor Mitt Romney for a religious exemption from the ban on orientation discrimination. Governor Romney reluctantly responded that he lacked legal authority to grant one unilaterally, by executive order. So the governor and archbishop turned to the state legislature, requesting a conscience exemption that would allow Catholic Charities to continue to help kids in a manner consistent with Catholic teaching.

To date, not a single other Massachusetts political leader appears willing to consider even the narrowest religious exemption. Lieutenant Governor Kerry Healey, the Republican candidate for governor in this fall's election, refused to budge: "I believe that any institution that wants to provide services that are regulated by the state has to abide by the laws of the state," Healey told the Boston Globe on March 2, "and our antidiscrimination laws are some of our most important."

I'm kind of torn about this myself. I am an adamant supporter of gay couples being allowed to adopt, but I also think religious organizations (and individuals) should be allowed some leeway to follow their own theology. I fully support, for example, the Supreme Court decision that allowed the Boy Scouts to deny membership to gay men. However, I do not support public funds going to such an organization, and my son sure as hell will never be a Boy Scout.

But what's interesting about the Catholic Charities of Boston case is that the theologically-based edict that the organization could not adopt kids out to same-sex couples came from on high. The people who do the day-to-day work? The people who actually were working with the kids and the prospective parents? They support adoption by same-sex couples. So really, it wasn't so much the state forcing the organization to bow to its wishes, but the PARENT organization (the Catholic Church) forcing its will on what was otherwise working.

Granted, It's CATHOLIC Charities of Boston, which means the Catholic Church gets to say how it operates. But are we putting our theology to a rigorous enough test if we only look to traditional views of Scripture and not at how that intersects with real day-to-day life? If the people who handle the adoptions find same-sex couples to be excellent candidates for parenting, then is it possible that it's the theology that's skewed? Touchy subject, I know, because faith by definition can't be proven. But we have to remember that everything we know about God, including what's in the Scriptures, is filtered through imperfect humans. The idea that any of the versions of Christianity as we know it today are straight from God without humans mucking it up and making into that "dark mirror" Paul talked about in 1 Corinthians 13 is ludicrous. It takes very little research to find that most of the "fundamentals" of Christianity come not from Paul or even Jesus, but from debates in the early church. Debates among flawed humans. Much like the debates that are still happening today.

But that's really another argument for another day. Putting aside whether or not the Catholic Church is right or wrong on the issue of adoption, following the church's theology has put Catholic Charities of Boston in a position of having to defy state law, which means that in good conscience, the only thing it can do is to withdraw from the adoption business, and this is really in nobody's best interest.

This is just one example where a conflict has arisen for a religious institution because its theology diverges from the law of the state, which in this case views same-sex married couples as legally the same as opposite-sex married couples. The author of the article goes on to discuss a forum of ten religious liberty scholars from all ends of the political spectrum.

Reading through these and the other scholars' papers, I noticed an odd feature. Generally speaking the scholars most opposed to gay marriage were somewhat less likely than others to foresee large conflicts ahead--perhaps because they tended to find it "inconceivable," as Doug Kmiec of Pepperdine law school put it, that "a successful analogy will be drawn in the public mind between irrational, and morally repugnant, racial discrimination and the rational, and at least morally debatable, differentiation of traditional and same-sex marriage." That's a key consideration. For if orientation is like race, then people who oppose gay marriage will be treated under law like bigots who opposed interracial marriage. Sure, we don't arrest people for being racists, but the law does intervene in powerful ways to punish and discourage racial discrimination, not only by government but also by private entities. Doug Laycock, a religious liberty expert at the University of Texas law school, similarly told me we are a "long way" from equating orientation with race in the law.

By contrast, the scholars who favor gay marriage found it relatively easy to foresee looming legal pressures on faith-based organizations opposed to gay marriage, perhaps because many of these scholars live in social and intellectual circles where the shift Kmiec regards as inconceivable has already happened. They have less trouble imagining that people and groups who oppose gay marriage will soon be treated by society and the law the way we treat racists because that's pretty close to the world in which they live now.

I think this is where the rubber meets the road. There is no such thing as pure religious liberty. If I belonged to a religion that devoutly believed the key to salvation was human sacrifice, I'm pretty sure the state would prevent me from practicing that element of my faith, and rightly so. In a more real-world example, Warren Jeffs, the leader of a religious sect that supports polygamy, just made the FBI's 10 Most Wanted list.

Warren Jeffs, 50, leader of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, is accused of arranging marriages between underage girls and older men....

Jeffs is wanted in Arizona on criminal charges of sexual conduct with a minor. He also was charged in Utah with rape as an accomplice. He was placed on the FBI's 10 Most Wanted Fugitives list Saturday with a $100,000 reward.

So here we have a definite case of the rights of others (the underage girls being forced into these marriages) trumping the religious liberty of Jeffs and his sect.

I think it's interesting to note that one of the staple arguments used by organizations opposed to same-sex marriage is that it would get us on the "slippery slope" to legalizing polygamy. It's disingenuous, then, to argue that the peril to their religious liberty is crucial while at the same time supporting laws that deny the same kinds of religious liberties to sects like the one Jeffs belongs to. The reason we deny Jeffs his religious liberty is a good one: his religion is unfairly denying rights to others, namely the underage girls he's forcing into marriage and sexual relationships. The fact that his theology says that's what God wants doesn't take away the state's responsibility to protect these girls. Their rights trump his religious liberty, and that's as it should be.

So the question becomes, should the rights of GLBT people and of same-sex couples trump the religious liberty of those who believe those relationships are inherently sinful and morally repugnant? Is discriminating against LGBT people the same thing as discriminating against racial minorities? Against women? Is keeping marriage exclusive to straight couples the same thing as, for example, laws that made it illegal for couples of different races to marry? This is what the argument all boils down to: whose rights prevail?

I would argue that yes, the rights of GLBT people should trump religious liberty. My religious liberty should extend only so far as I don't infringe on the rights of others, and denying GLBT people and same-sex couples the same rights and responsibilities straight couples enjoy does infringe on their rights. It does hurt their families in very real ways that are much more significant and tangible then "the state is stopping me from practicing my religion." Kids being ripped from homes, families being torn apart, loved ones being denied access to each other in times of crises; surely these are all far greater ills then "my church can't get a license to be an adoption agency because we thing same-sex relationships are wrong."

I would also add that current laws against same-sex marriage also deny some individuals religious liberty. A same-sex couple whose faith allows for same-sex relationships but only allows for sexual conduct within the confines of marriage is being denied their religious liberty if they aren't allowed to get married. So whose religious liberty wins out? Mine or yours?

I applaud Maggie Gallagher for her well-written article and after eight years of searching, I can finally concede that yes, there is a case for how gay marriage affects straight people. But it still doesn't come close to making the argument that this makes same-sex marriage bad. The scale still falls heavily in favor of the rights of same-sex couples. Ripping apart families in the name of religious liberty is simply not a fair trade-off.

Saturday, May 06, 2006

50 years and nothing's changed

Last night we watched the movie West Side Story. My daughters are really into musicals and dancing and even though it can be intense at times, I thought the message would be a good one for the kids to see.

While watching it, I was really struck by how timely it is. The song America in particular could've been written yesterday. I think that song, especially the movie version, captures this country better than any other song out there because it accurately reflects both America's good points and its deep flaws.

It's depressing, though, that fifty years after the song was written, the exact same deep flaws still exist. I want to be able to watch this movie and think to myself, "Thank God things are better now," but I can't. They're not better. We still treat each other in the same hateful way over differences. Over where we come from, never mind that almost none of us come from here.

I don't normally write about immigration because unlike gay rights issues, which to me are very clear--everyone deserves the same rights to decide their own family, full stop--immigration policy is a murky quagmire and I don't know what the solution is. But I know what it isn't. It isn't hate and intolerance and putting up huge walls and being okay with people dying in the desert. Once again, I turn to Slacktivist to sum up my feelings on immigration better than I could.

I should have been more precise in the previous post: The ethics of immigration policy can be complicated. Immigration policy, by definition, has to do with borders and boundaries, with drawing lines that distinguish one group of people from another and establishing rules for treating these different groups differently. These things are an inescapable part of statecraft, of governing. They are also morally perilous since pretty much every kind of evil begins with the drawing of boundaries between groups of people in order that these others can be treated differently.

Christian ethics can, in a way, be viewed as a prolonged argument between us humans and God in which we're always trying to create boundaries of moral obligation, to create concentric circles beyond which the duties of love and justice do not apply. "Am I my brother's keeper?" "Who then is my neighbor?"

Jesus saw where this was going and cut to the chase: "Love your enemy."

So apart from the hard questions of policy and statecraft, the ethics of how we should respond to (or even talk about) immigrants is not at all complicated. They deserve justice, and more than justice, they deserve magnanimity. The stranger and the alien are our neighbors, our brothers.

Tuesday, May 02, 2006

It's not MY fault!

Ever since Mary Kay Letourneau gained infamy by sleeping with a 13-year-old student (and then having a baby with him and later marrying him), it seems that stories about older women in positions of authority abusing teenage boys are becoming more and more frequent. I'm assuming this is because our society is beginning to recognize this as the statutory rape it is instead of the "nudge-nudge-wink-wink lucky kid got laid by his teacher" reaction of days past. So I (sadly) wasn't surprised to read this story about a female corrections officer having sex with a 15-year-old prisoner.

According to court documents, [Amy Lynn] Barker was 21 when she met the boy at the Catalina Mountain School in 2002. The two progressed from kissing to oral sex.

When the boy was later sent to a halfway house, authorities say, Barker encouraged him to run away on two occasions so they could have sexual relations. The boy didn't return after the second time he ran away, and Barker rented an apartment for the two of them.

When the boy moved to Mexico, authorities say, Barker visited him to continue their affair.

What does continue to surprise me is the complete inability of perpetrators like Barker--and Letourneau before her--to recognize that they've done anything wrong. It's almost shocking the lack of responsibility Barker takes for her actions:

"I'm not a sexual offender. I'm not a sexual predator," Amy Lynn Barker told Judge Charles Sabalos at her sentencing hearing in Pima County Superior Court.

"I don't feel like I had anything to do with it; I just allowed it to happen," Barker said.

But wait! There's more!

Although what she did was wrong because of her position of authority, Barker said, she didn't think she should go to jail, because "it's not like I have a lack of empathy" with the victim.

Anyone else get whiplash from trying to follow that line of reasoning? Letourneau's response to her crime was similar: she didn't do anything wrong, it was twu wuv!

Excuse me while I locate the nearest airsick bag.

It is wrong for adults--especially in positions of authority--to have sex with minors. Calling it "love" or saying you don't "lack empathy" doesn't make it okay. The fact that the adult is a female and the minor a male doesn't make it okay or sexy. It's an abuse of power, full stop, and that is always mutually exclusive from both love and empathy.

The apostle Paul gives us a beautiful description of love in 1 Corinthians 13:4-6 (emphasis mine):

Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth.

Ladies, take responsibility for your actions. What you did was wrong. And it was neither loving nor empathetic and your victims deserved better.