“Gay rights are threatening religious liberty.” This statement, while a touch extreme, is, no less, a common sentiment among political conservatives in the United States. Its iterations and manifestations can be seen across the board, from Washington’s attempt to give “religious and moral exemptions” to anyone who was conflicted about serving lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people (including grocery stores, gas stations, medical clinics, etc.) to Congress’ inability to pass the Student Non-Discrimination Act (which conservative think-tanks warned would make legitimate opposition to the homosexual lifestyle illegal). The legitimacy to which they refer is, in essence, derived from thousands of years of unchanged and unchangeable religious heritage. Therefore, the very concept that homosexuality should be recognized under the law is in clear violation of the religious freedoms that the Constitution so clearly guarantees.
Or is it? Arguing that religious liberties are threatened by changes to civil rights laws (because the Constitution doesn’t say anything about gay people, but it does mention religion) is not unique to this era, nor is it unique to LGBT people. When Civil Rights activists in the 1950s demanded that legalized segregation be ruled unconstitutional, they faced the same opposition from religious activists, citing that such a change would limit their ability to practice their religion as they saw fit. When the 19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution granted women the right to vote in 1920, it was argued that doing so threatened a man’s biblical status as head of his household. And when slavery was outlawed in 1865, religious slave-owners lamented that something the Bible accepted was now legally denied.
While religious people throughout U.S. history have used their religion to argue against social change, they reflect only one side of a large discussion. It is a reality that the teachings of a religion change with time, change that is supported by members of the religion (not outside pressures). These changes are not on the order of millennia, but rather decades. As an example, it is commonly assumed that the Catholic Church is monolithically unchangeable in its values. According to the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, “for 2,000 years the Church has taught the same things which Jesus taught.”
Strictly speaking, that’s patently false. It wasn’t until the First Council of Nicaea (A.D. 325), that the Church officially considered Jesus divine. More subtle changes can be found in the Church’s recent history. In 1863, Catholic scholar John Henry Newman defended the concept of slavery as morally just, yet Pope John Paul II pronounced it to be intrinsically evil a century later. Before 1966, eating meat on a Friday was grounds for eternal damnation. After 1966, that belief quietly disappeared, as Pope Paul VI authorized national bishops’ councils to relax the requirements for Catholics to abstain from meat in their respective countries. These changes, subtle or drastic, are clues to the Church’s adaptation to a changing society, even while it professes not to change.
But how do the Catholic Church’s changing stances relate to civil rights? While the American discourse on civil rights characterizes them as a result of liberalism (as well as secularism and general godlessness), the word of God can be used to argue for expansions to civil liberties. When the United Kingdom debated legalizing same-sex marriage, it had to account for the fact that the Church of England (the official church of the Kingdom) expressly opposes homosexuality. However, the Society of Friends (what we in America call the Quakers) accepts same-sex marriage within its churches in the U.K. As the Society does not “vote” on issues of canon but rather acts in unanimity, its 2009 decision to endorse same-sex marriage in the U.K. was rather significant. They, along with several other religions like Reform Judaism, were instrumental in arguing for the necessity of same-sex marriage as a matter of their religious freedom.
When religious individuals argue that a change in society directly affects the way they practice their faith, they often avoid and disregard the wider implications of their statements. When any religious adherents living in America believe that their religious convictions alone justify legal policy, they ignore the reality that an individual’s freedom of religion applies only so far as not to infringe upon the rights of any other individual. American media love to demonize Middle Eastern governments, many of which are ruled by a political form of Islam. We charge them as suppressing their citizens’ natural rights to self-determination by imposing an unquestionable interpretation of the Quran. And yet, when Republican Pennsylvania Rep. Daryl Metcalfe of Butler County blocked Democratic Rep. Brian Simms of Philadelphia from talking about same-sex marriage in the chamber, what was his cited reason? That Simms’ speech was an “open rebellion against God.” Metcalfe’s oppressive behavior and religious justification thankfully do not reflect the majority of conservative politicians in Pennsylvania (who apologized to Simms for the action). However, they do find sympathies across the nation, with individuals who argue that their religion must be protected from civil rights.
Richard Furstein is the distribution manager at The Triangle. He can be contacted at [email protected].