Gay Marriage and the Next Round of Civil Disobedience
The western world in general and the United States in particular both have long histories of civil disobedience. From Sophocles' character Antigone to Henry David Thoreau to Martin Luther King Jr., the consistent theme of civil disobedience has been conscience. Conscience, that inner voice which guides us in our deliberations on morality, oftentimes molded by our religious upbringing and beliefs, is the driving force behind an individual or group of individuals who refuse to obey unjust laws. This paradigm is very familiar to us from the 20th century when it was used both by Dr. King and Mahatma Gandhi to affect policies through peaceful protest and to otherwise act in noncompliance with the authorities as their conscience dictated. And though the Civil Rights struggle in America has been successfully co-opted by gay rights activists, the overlap between the two only goes so far.
The issue of certain businesses declining to do business that coincides with gay marriage/civil union ceremonies recently has sparked an intense amount of debate. Isn't this the same as denying blacks service at Woolworth's lunch counter? Isn't this identical to really any sort of business that was labeled as "whites only?" The honest answer to both questions has to boil down to an unequivocal "no."
The answer is in the negative for two very important reasons. Firstly, the Woolworth's example, and most sit-ins in general, were aimed at using market forces to convince a business to change its policy. Leaving aside the property-rights issue of right to refuse service, the A&T Four were simply trying to use their rights as citizens to protest without recourse to government force. Today the Civil Rights Act of 1964 is considered landmark since it forced desegregation across much of the country where it was practiced, but the Woolworth's lunch counters nationwide were desegregated four years earlier in 1960. Much can obviously be accomplished via persuasion, which is the power of the free citizen when peacefully assembled per the first amendment to the Constitution. Coercion, the province of government, is not nearly as necessary as some believe.
The second reason that the analogy fails to pass muster is that none of the bakeries or photographers who have refused to work in conjunction with gay weddings has explicitly refused to do business in general with anyone who is gay. I submit that a gay man requesting a photo session for his graduation ceremony would not be declined, nor would a lesbian buying a birthday cake for herself, her mother, her partner, or whomever. If there were any sort of documentation for this heavy-handed and wholesale discrimination, then the link to Woolworth's would be made stronger (though the previous point would still apply). But no such documentation seems to exist, and so the link is tenuous at best. The only refusal is to help in the celebration of something that is unconscionable to the Christian proprietors, which would require them to at least implicitly endorse that which they believe to be morally wrong.
The difference between what the store owners are doing and what they are being portrayed as are worlds apart. And this appeal to conscience, and their refusal to obey laws or rulings from courts, naturally must come in second to their inner moral compass, and this is where they join the ranks of past conscientious objectors. By adhering to their moral standards, even if in doing so they are forming a majority of only one, they are joining the ranks of the men and women we look up to as the few and the brave.
Antigone went forth with giving her brother a proper burial at the cost of her life. Thoreau went to jail for not paying taxes to support the Mexican-American War. He only spent one night there, and so comparatively got off easy, but that is only because the tax was paid by someone else over Thoreau's objections. Both Gandhi and King were assassinated. There is a price to pay for bucking the system, and this the business owners exercising their right to conscience know well. Death threats, intimidation and court-levied fines are the order of the day, and more may yet come.
But even as those who are pushing the gay rights and gay marriage agenda tout the successes of the Civil Rights movement, harnessing it for their own purposes and own ends, they do it a disservice. By appealing to government to coerce businesses and individuals they undermine the most dramatic achievements of that very movement. They prove themselves utterly divested from the classical liberalism that is their heritage and which espouses the very methods that the A&T Four pursued in Greensboro, and that the boycotters of the Montgomery Bus System used. The respect for King's appeal to a law higher than that of man is completely disregarded.
In his famous Letter from a Birmingham Jail, Dr. King tells us explicitly of the difference between just and unjust laws. The former are in sync with moral law and/or the laws of G-d, and one has not just a right, but a duty to resist them. How then can so many, from average citizens to the highest judges and politicians, deny the right of obeying their conscience via civil disobedience to this small, believing minority? How is what was morally upright half a century ago now decried as being analogous to apartheid? In short, how can civil disobedience be wrong?