This Is How Progressives Should Deal With a Post-Hobby Lobby America

Salem’s Old Town Hall: no longer managed by Gordon College.

Photo courtesy of Salem Old Town Hall

Gordon College is a small Christian university that has publicly declared its desire to claim a special right to discriminate against LGBT students, staff, and faculty. Salem, Massachusetts, is a small progressive town with an LGBT non-discrimination ordinance. For years, Salem contracted with Gordon to manage its Old Town Hall. But when Gordon announced its desire to a special right to fire LGBT workers, Salem canceled the contract, finding that the university’s stated discriminatory intent directly violated the town’s non-discrimination ordinance.

After Glenn Beck’s The Blaze picked this story up, right-wing readers began calling Salem’s mayor, Kimberly Driscoll, treating her to angry and often offensive anti-gay tirades. In response, Driscoll doubled down: Rather than retract her decision, she declared that Salem would donate $5 to a local LGBT rights group for each seething call she received. Driscoll then shared her message on social media, encouraging everyone else to donate money to the group as well.

Right-wing organizations are predictably incensed, trotting out the Christian persecution complex for a midsummer encore. Yet the entire situation seems, to me, to be an ideal illustration of pluralism in action. In the brave new pluralist world that conservatives have foisted upon us, we aren’t allowed to force businesses to treat all customers and employees equally. Conservative Christians must be given the freedom to “dissent”—i.e., discriminate—and progressives must simply deal with the fact that from here on out, religiously affiliated corporations and colleges get to exert newfound control over the autonomy and destiny of gays, women, and trans people.

But if pluralism is truly about letting tolerant and intolerant people practice their beliefs unimpeded, then isn’t the Salem affair a perfect pluralist parable? Gordon College doesn’t like gay people; Salem does. Gordon demands the right to discriminate against gays; Salem, in response, tells Gordon: Do what you want on your own campus, but don’t inflict your prejudices on our public spaces. Gordon continues to discriminate on its own property; Salem continues to mandate equality. If that isn’t “allowing different understandings of social justice to be pursued simultaneously,” then I don’t know what is.

Update, July 17, 2014: When I inquired, the mayor’s office clarified that Driscoll will not be using city or taxpayer funds for her donations.