Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee used a highly flawed analogy Sunday to help explain why he shouldn’t be expected to embrace same-sex marriage. For a Christian, he argued, supporting it would be “like asking somebody who’s Jewish to start serving bacon-wrapped shrimp in their deli” or “like asking a Muslim to serve up something that is offensive to him, or to have dogs in his backyard.”
Why is it flawed? Huckabee opposes giving gay couples civil marriage licenses, and he supports the right of like-minded marriage equality opponents to refuse service to gay people if they operate a business. But observant Jews have never sought to keep anyone, except perhaps other Jews, from eating anything at all—and never using the bludgeon of civil law. Huckabee’s analogy would only apply if Jews tried to block everyone else from eating non-kosher food. His analogy is equally flawed when it comes to his related claim that Christians should have the right to refuse service to people who don’t share their beliefs. Observant Jews don’t refuse to serve non-Jews; they simply don’t serve non-kosher food in their businesses. Anyone can buy what they serve. And accepting the right of gays to wed is not like asking a Muslim to serve something barred by Islam or to let a dog on his private property. It’s like asking a Muslim to let customers of all faiths (or none at all) into his shop and to accept the right of others to have dogs as pets. No one is forcing anyone to get gay-married, just as, in the “gay cake wars,” no one is forcing anti-gay bakers to make a cake that says “Congratulations on your gay wedding”—they are simply asking them to sell the cakes they already make to anyone who wants to buy them.
Huckabee, of course, is engaged in a larger campaign that conservative Christians have orchestrated as they come to realize that they will lose the battle to prevent marriage equality: The aim is to turn the tables on discrimination by casting equal rights as anti-Christian. The reasoning here is so sloppy and disingenuous that I can hardly bear to waste pixels refuting it, something which has been ably done by countless others. In short, religious liberty protects freedom of conscience; it does not give people license to behave however they want, particularly if they are operating a business. As my Columbia Law School colleague Katherine Franke has written, would we allow “a Christian Scientist-owned construction company to be exempted from state-mandated health and safety regulations for its employees because it prefers to rely on prayer? Of course not. Religiously owned or affiliated organizations that employ people of all faiths and backgrounds ought to play by the same rules as every other employer, including being subject to health, safety, and labor regulations.”
It can be tempting to sympathize with the religious liberty argument. After all, we’ve heard for years that Christianity and other major religions clearly teach that homosexuality is sinful and immoral. Can it really be fair to ask people of faith to abandon their most cherished, longstanding beliefs?
As I’ve argued before, the idea that Christianity dictates anti-gay beliefs is just not true—at least nowhere near as emphatically true as we’ve been led to believe by the most recent generation of sexually fixated religious right crusaders. Cherry-picking convenient passages and teachings from Scripture is an age-old—and supremely lazy—example of rationalizing bias and discrimination, as evidenced by how often it was used in generations past to rationalize racial and gender discrimination. (As recently as 2009, Southern Baptists, citing the Bible, called “for wives to be submissive to their husbands.”)
It should be abundantly clear that the same thing is going on here. Wonderfully amusing examples abound of religious conservatives turning their eyes from the Christian proscription against divorce—which is more clearly articulated in the Bible than a ban on same-sex marriage—while posturing about their solemn duty to oppose gay people’s freedom to marry. The day I hear an anti-gay baker quiz every potential customer about whether they’ve ever been married before (the New Testament considers divorced people to be committing the sin of adultery) is the day I’ll consider their anti-gay claims sincere. In fact, a Colorado baker who was sued for refusing to sell a gay couple a wedding cake had no problem baking a cake for the wedding of two dogs decorated with the names Roscoe and Buffy.
So while the anti-gay religious liberty argument can seem sincere, don’t buy it. It is rarely, if ever, waged in good faith, and it should be refuted wherever and whenever it emerges.
All that said, there is an important difference between asking people to support the legal right of gays to marry and asking them to embrace gay marriage in their hearts—to the point where they’re actually pleased to be baking a wedding cake to celebrate a gay union. Some advocates of marriage equality care little about the latter, arguing that legal parity is a sufficient goal and that there’s little reason to wrangle hearts and minds beyond what’s needed to secure equal protection of the law.
I have long believed that both goals are important. I’ve argued that marriage takes its special social and psychological meaning from the willingness of people everywhere—and particularly one’s close friends and family—to recognize and support a couple’s union, an idea that was vividly reinforced for me when I got married last fall. While it may seem tempting to write off Huckabee as a far-right sourpuss whose approval gays don’t need to secure the right to legal marriage, that’s a position that would be neglectful to indulge. Huckabee, and the millions of others who continue to share his viewpoint, will inevitably find themselves the friends or family of gay people, particularly young ones, who may badly need or want their blessing. It’s a blue-state luxury to dismiss this supra-legal dimension of the battle for gay acceptance.
It would be a stretch to think that Huckabee himself will come around any time soon. Political and cultural leaders who thrive off discrimination and divisions are probably not a reasonable target of engagement. But others who share these views should be engaged rather than alienated—recent research suggests that the lost art of simple conversation is one of the most effective ways to change minds. They should be invited to consider the inconsistencies of their positions and reminded that reading Scripture is an interpretive process. Many may feel their beliefs are sincere without even realizing that they’re a veil for bias. They should be offered a path to acceptance—call it, say, amnesty for social conservatives. Marriage equality is winning. To seal the deal, we shouldn’t settle for legal parity; we must bring along anyone and everyone willing to come to our side.
Want to hang out with Outward? If you’ll be in or near New York City on Feb. 3, join June Thomas, J. Bryan Lowder, and Mark Joseph Stern—and special guest Lea DeLaria of Orange Is the New Black fame!—for a queer kiki at the first ever Outward LIVE show, hosted by City Winery. Details and tickets can be found here.