David Rodeback's Blog

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Thursday, January 23, 2014
Rights and Rites and Right and the Right: Part Two

If my willingness to embrace gay people as friends, colleagues, neighbors, relatives, and fellow believers incurs the wrath of the God you worship, I am unmoved. The God I worship understands that the worth of every human soul -- yours, mine, everyone's -- is far greater than the sum of its actual or human-perceived sins.

This is the second post in a larger discussion. I recommend reading the first one, but if you'd rather not, you might be okay knowing that it  ends with this excellent jumping-off point for today:

Our American civic morality is grounded in these familiar words from the Declaration of Independence: "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness." We call these inalienable, God-given rights. We declare that they are inherent in each human soul, not granted by government.

Bear in mind that "the pursuit of happiness" means not my right to chase happiness, but my right to live, within the reasonable bounds of legitimate law and of others' similar rights, in the manner which makes me happy -- not the manner which makes you happy or which you think should make me happy. Outside the general moral consensus, as measured by our institutions of representative self-government, if you feel it is in your moral, economic, or political interest to adjust my pursuit of happiness in some manner, you must, in deference to my freedom, confine your efforts at reforming me to persuasion and example. You must not resort to the force of law.

Today we'll take up an application of these principles. We begin with some Broadway music -- or not.

Men of American Fork, Beware

In American Fork, Utah, among other places, men have to be careful not to show too much enthusiasm for live theater. We must also avoid being caught singing or whistling show tunes.

You think I'm being silly, but I'm not. If an employer or supervisor catches us doing such things, whether at work or in a chance encounter in the WalMart check-out line, he can interpret that behavior as evidence that we are gay and fire us for cause. It doesn't matter whether the theater enthusiast is gay or not, and heaven knows we don't want to require or empower employers to test the proposition.

Men and women from cultures where ordinary, non-romantic friends commonly hold hands or kiss on the lips in public must be equally cautious, lest their employers see them, draw false conclusions about their sexuality, and dismiss them from their jobs on that basis. Reality and authentic cultural differences offer no legal shelter against an employer's perceptions in this matter.

Men and women who rent apartments must be cautious. If a landlord thinks a tenant is gay, there is no law to prevent him from evicting said tenant. Again, the renter's actual sexual orientation is not the point -- and, again, we certainly do not want landlords testing renters for authentic gayness.

In case you think the gay/theater stereotype is too silly to be credible, consider what I heard in a certain City committee meeting several years ago in American Fork. Some people argued with a straight face (sorry, pun intended) that we shouldn't do anything to support or encourage live theater in the city, because everybody knows live theater attracts gay people.

I Want the Protection, and I'm Straight

Even Utahns who politically are well to the right of li'l ol' conservative me (a seemingly infinite expanse), and who believe that homosexuality itself should be punished under the law, must concede that it would be unfair for me, a straight man, to be fired or evicted because my fondness for show tunes causes someone falsely to perceive that I am gay. So, unless we are willing to embrace some sort of authoritative, unconscionably invasive test for gayness, we have a real problem, if the right bigot with the wrong stereotype catches me whistling something from Brigadoon.

We can minimize my risk and spare landlords and employers the temptation to question everyone's sexual orientation rather simply. Let's pass sensible ordinances prohibiting discrimination in employment and housing on the basis of actual or perceived sexual orientation and gender identity. To be sensible, these ordinances would have to include exceptions for religious and other advocacy organizations and for employment or residence in someone else's home -- because at my home, more than anywhere else, I should have more latitude to enforce my particular principles than in an office, factory, or apartment complex.

The Utah Legislature will consider just such a bill in coming weeks. I hope they pass it this time.

I assume that my right-wing friends would be eager to provide me, a heterosexual male, with legal protection from "the right bigot with the wrong stereotype," if only it did not, as a practical matter, require them to offer some shelter to actual homosexuals at the same time, and thus -- in their view -- offend God and jeopardize the very survival of human civilization.

The Universal Protected Class

Opponents commonly argue that the proposed legislation will create a new "protected class" -- and then they range from vague to creative in their attempts to explain what that might mean in practice. Let gay people live and work in our communities, and all our teeth will fall out, and BYU will never will another important football game. Sometimes it's almost that ridiculous.

Opponents are right in at least this limited sense: protected classes get special consideration in our jurisprudence. Whether we would be creating a new protected class or not seems almost immaterial to me. Here's why.

As far as I can see, we would just be acknowledging my gay and transgender friends' membership in a very large protected class which already exists: humans. Or Americans, if you prefer. We would simply be adding sexual orientation and gender identity (in both cases, perceived or otherwise) to the list of things we cannot use as grounds partially to exclude people from the most important, most generously defined protected class of all.

How Far Are You Willing to Go?

To my right-wing friends who oppose such legislation, because you believe homosexual activity is immoral -- I believe that too, and I should be free to say so without being accused of hate speech -- I pose a few questions.

Given that you believe homosexual activity to be evil, how far are you willing to go to make gays unwelcome in your community?

Do you believe that gays forfeit the legal right to pursue happiness on their terms, in the community of their choice, because one aspect of their lifestyle is evil, according to what you and I accept as God-given moral law?

I don't.

Can you with clear conscience jeopardize their homes and families or their jobs, as long as you don't put them in jail (severely curtail their physical liberty) or kill them (deprive them of life)?

I can't.

Thin, Thinner, Water

The right to life is pretty thin broth if you're willing to grant it to gays only in the sense that you will refrain from killing them, but you feel free (irony noted) to make it difficult for them to live in your community. The right to liberty is equally thin if you think that the presence in your community of people who disagree with some of your moral principles infringes on your own legitimate liberty. The broth is practically water, if you think that you have adequately safeguarded someone else's liberty simply by agreeing not to put him in jail.

I have gay friends, colleagues, neighbors, and relatives. I may not endorse one aspect of their lifestyle. I may sometimes teach and preach against it. But I do not claim the right to evict them from my community, and I am determined to defend them as best I can from those who think it is their God-given right or duty to do so. I actually enjoy having my gay friends in my community, not because of their sexual orientation, but because there is much more to them than their sexual orientation -- and most of that is good.

If my willingness to embrace them as friends, colleagues, neighbors, relatives, and fellow believers incurs the wrath of the God you worship, I am unmoved. The God I worship understands that the worth of every human soul -- yours, mine, everyone's -- is far greater than the sum of its actual or human-perceived sins.

My zealot friends, if you feel the need to act in defense of your values -- as I do -- please, do so vigorously. Use every humane tool of persuasion at your disposal. I promise to defend you when some of your more intolerant opponents argue that criticizing someone's lifestyle on religious grounds is hate speech. But don't try to use the law in matters where there is no -- or is no longer -- general agreement in American society. When you attempt to use the law, I feel the need to defend those against whom you would use it, whether I agree with them or endorse every facet of their lifestyle or not.

A genuine commitment to freedom requires that we get used to defending people with whom we disagree. It's good for society. It's good for the soul.

Even if those people are gay. Or like show tunes. Or both.

(If you want to know how I evaluate same-sex marriage in this context, stay tuned. We're most of the way to that discussion now. Before we get there, we'll need to discuss my possible man-crush and a figurative woodshed. If you're troubled by the question, How can a good Mormon write such things as this post, read the first post in this series. Maybe it will help.)

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