Rest easy, orthodox Christians, Jews, and Muslims. The New York Times wants you to know there is no reason to fear your conscience protections being steamrolled by the juggernaut that is the queer politics machine.
In a hopeful op-ed titled “We Can Find Common Ground on Gay Rights and Religious Liberty,” with the rest-assured subtitle “It does not have to be all or nothing,” Jonathan Rauch, whom I value as a long and deeply respected friend, and Peter Wehner say the Supreme Court’s recent Bostock decision provides a golden opportunity for religious conservatives and gay activists to “make a deal.” They speak hopefully of mutually beneficial compromise, with both sides attaining their desired freedoms and protections.
While I trust their talk of compromise is well-intentioned, it is profoundly naïve. Both men are intimately aware of the way the queer movement’s leadership has framed the issue and how dutifully their media and elite partisans have carried their water for decades. Their message? Gay rights are civil rights. Full stop.
Activists Don’t Negotiate Civil Rights
This truth claim is not a statement of fact. It is one of faith, ideological conviction, and rhetorical strategy. It is aspirational. The mission is for all to adopt this belief and condemn anyone who doesn’t as a hateful bigot. There is no middle ground.
The call of the day used to be “live and let live,” but no more. Now the call is, “You will respect and affirm everything about my new understanding of sexuality and gender, or else.”
This script has been most effective. But if gay and trans rights really are civil rights, their proponents know the first rule of civil rights is that you don’t negotiate them. True justice dictates you demand them, and don’t quiet down until you’ve attained the fullness of every last one.
The queer movement — elsewhere, Rauch recommends using the more concise and inclusive “Q,” or queer, rather than the alphabet soup — cannot employ the end-of-discussion “civil rights” language, consistently label their opponents hateful bigots, and then also speak of good-faith compromise. The two exist in necessarily exclusive universes. Absolute language requires absoluteness, and the queer movement leaders set these terms with great care and intention.
Religious Freedoms Endanger Queer Demands
Likewise, the free exercise of religion, a foundational right of all Americans from our nation’s founding, cannot be negotiated either. Leading gay advocates powerfully dismiss that right, even calling it dangerous.
Jack Phillips of Masterpiece Cake Shop sought to defend himself against emotional, reputational, economic, and legal ruin by saying his faith disallowed him from using his God-given talents to design a cake for a same-sex wedding. Was he met with deference, understanding, and a spirit of compromise by the authorities of the Colorado Civil Rights Commission? Hardly.
One commissioner condemned his faith-based reason at a public hearing in the strongest terms, equating his action to slavery and the Holocaust and denouncing his religious freedom claim as “one of the most despicable pieces of rhetoric people can use.”
If only such accusations were rare. A commissioner for the Oregon Bureau of Labor and Industries insisted that two bakers who could not provide services for a gay wedding because of their faith needed to be “rehabilitate[d].” As a presidential candidate, Beto O’Rourke declared that churches refusing to get on board with performing same-sex weddings would lose important legal protections.
The Fairness For All Act Isn’t Fair at All
Rauch and Wehner are selling the federal Fairness for All Act as the right vehicle for compromise and togetherness. This is also naive. This legislation, joined by the so-called Equality Act in the Senate, has been strongly denounced by leading groups on both sides of the issue.
When a bill’s rosy title signals that if it is passed, all will be right with the world, it’s a good sign someone’s putting rouge on a pig. First, when you negotiate carveouts for religious protections — a first freedom — you give up, not gain, ground.
The Fairness for All Act provides protections for religious schools, colleges, and charities, but these are tremendously narrow and few given the breadth of possible encroachments that will occur as sexual and gender options continue to expand. This will leave not only religious organizations seriously vulnerable, but also medical and social-service professionals whose work is informed by religious convictions.
Compromise Doesn’t Have a Good Track Record
The authors make much of how a similar compromise bill passed with great fanfare in the extremely conservative and religiously informed Utah Legislature some years ago. Using Utah as an example for the nation is problematic though.
Mormon public relations were heavily at play there, and the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints was a power player in California’s Prop 8, which sought to protect natural marriage from redefinition. Their involvement created a great deal of blow back with charges of “bigotry” from members and others and thus a PR crisis for the church. Church leadership soon mobilized with great enthusiasm, getting passed a piece of legislation termed “The Utah Compromise,” which was the seed of the Fairness for All Act.
It was clear to all parties in the state legislature that church leadership at the highest level wanted this to happen as a counterbalance to “anti-gay” stigma stemming from its Prop 8 work. Thus, the Republican-dominated Utah legislature got behind the bill. Few leaders or organizations on either side of the issue were really happy with this exceptional legislative phenomenon. It was really only a win for the Mormon Church.
So no, the dream for reasonable and equitable compromise between those demanding absolute affirmation for ever-evolving gender and sexual convictions and others of strong religious faith is unrealistic — and not because of the intransigence of religious folks. They are not the ones who framed this debate in such absolutist terms.