Friday, July 27, 2012

On Losing the Moral High Ground

These are exciting times for gay rights.  We've seemingly turned a corner.  For the first time in history recent polls show a slim majority of people in the United States actually support marriage equality for same-sex couples.  The President of the United States, as well, has come out in support of marriage equality.  Even several religious groups are supporting equality, even embracing and welcoming gays into their ranks, not only as worshipers but also as clergy.

Perhaps the most important factor in this changing tide is the visibility of the gay community itself.  The truth is, as more people realize that they probably already know some gay people -- as friends, neighbors, and even family members come out as LGBT individuals -- more and more people realize that we aren't very different from them.  They realize that far from wanting to destroy society, we simply want to be able to participate in it equally.  They learn that we are people just like they are and are just as invested in a strong, just, and free society.

Because of this growing visibility and growing acceptance, the LGBT community is finding growing numbers of allies in positions of influence in politics, the media, churches, and virtually every realm of society.  We even have allies among groups traditionally reluctant to support our causes, if not outright hostile to them.  The end of Don't Ask/Don't Tell would never have happened as quickly and relatively seamlessly as it has without the support of at least some conservatives.  Even the GOP's own advisors have said that the party needs to get on the right side of history or else risk losing significant support, especially among younger generations.  Homophobic utterances very often now elicit the same public outcry that anti-semitic or racist remarks do.

A case in point is the recent outcry over revelations that the Chick-fil-A restaurant chain made donations to several groups that oppose marriage equality.  CEO Dan Cathy publicly confirmed that the company operated under "biblical values" (read "anti-gay") and warned of incurring the wrath of God if marriage equality is extended to homosexuals.  This has quickly become a national controversy with many celebrities and politicians condemning the anti-gay rhetoric and calling for boycotts of the restaurant.  (Unfortunately, a few others, notably Mike Huckabee and Rick Santorum, have come out in support of the fast food chain.)  Of course all this boycotting and counter-cotting is well within the rights of those on both sides.  I certainly have a right not to spend my money in an establishment where those same dollars are going to be used to curtail my rights.  Likewise, those who oppose marriage equality for same-sex couples are certainly within their rights to support establishments that share these views (narrow and bigoted as they may seem to a growing number of us).

Unfortunately, where there is power there is also the potential to abuse that power.  Recently the mayors of Chicago, Boston, and San Francisco have not only expressed their disgust over the anti-same-sex stance of Chick-fil-A CEO Dan Cathy, but have, to varying degrees at least intimated that the restaurant chain would not be welcome in their cities.  Chicago Mayor Rahm Emmanuel even went so far as to vow to block the chain's plans to open a restaurant there.  To my dismay, many of my friends seem to applaud this behavior.  To me, however, this is where we lose the moral high ground.

There is a marked difference between equal rights violations, and an individual exercising his Constitutional right to freedom of speech.  Unless Chick-fil-A is in violation of existing laws, they should be treated with equal fairness in civil matters of permits, licensing, etc.  The personal political views of the owner really shouldn't come into play.  That's the price we pay in the United States for our freedom of speech.  Imagine if the shoe were on the other foot and it were a business owner who was denied necessary permits simply because he was pro-same sex marriage?  Or how about a business being denied a liquor license simply because the owner was gay?  The truth is, we cannot afford to turn a blind eye when these sort of abuses are seemingly carried out in our favor.  In the fight for marriage equality we cry out that we are not seeking special rights but simply equal rights.  We can't afford to lose the moral high ground by allowing abuses of power to be done in our name.  Thankfully, at least, it appears the mayor of Boston has backed down on his threats to block the franchise, and the ACLU of Illinois has weighed in on the legality of such actions:

“The government can regulate discrimination in employment or against customers, but what the government cannot do is to punish someone for their words,” said Adam Schwartz, senior attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union of Illinois. “When an alderman refuses to allow a business to open because its owner has expressed a viewpoint the government disagrees with, the government is practicing viewpoint discrimination.” 
The ACLU “strongly supports” same-sex marriage, Schwartz said, but noted that if a government can exclude a business for being against same-sex marriage, it can also exclude a business for being in support of same-sex marriage. 
“But we also support the First Amendment,” he said. “We don’t think the government should exclude Chick-fil-A because of the anti-LGBT message. We believe this is clear cut.”

 Personally, I would like to see Chick-fil-A take a huge financial loss over this issue, but the way to bring this about is to withhold our patronage, not to condone the abuse of power by elected officials.  I say let Chick-fil-A open its locations.  If we truly feel that their policies are shameful, then let's not eat there and let's encourage our allies to withhold their money as well.  And most certainly let's keep a close eye on how they do their business, and if they are found to be in violation of equal opportunity laws (where they exist, as they do in Chicago, Boston, and San Francisco) then by all means let's sue the hell out of them.  But let's not become the thing we hate by supporting abuses of power done in our name.

[Thanks to my friend Dag for helping to clarify this issue for me.]