A Kind of Moral Rape

Let us assume, for the moment, that individuals and organizations opposed to Indiana’s new Religious Freedom Restoration Act are well intentioned and pursuing their protests in good conscience. That may be more credit than most of them would give to people on the other side of the debate. But I’ve got a point to make.

The view of the opposition is that this law denies the civil rights of gays. They are convinced that those who support it are motivated by animosity toward homosexuals and revulsion at the idea that people of the same sex can marry. Opponents reject any argument that the law is meant to defend religious freedom. In fact, they don’t see how religion comes into it very much at all: How does equality for some people impinge on the beliefs and faith practices of others? they’ll ask. This is a plural society. So it’s a matter of “Live and let live!”

Now, if you really press them, you might eventually get a little bit of candor out of somebody: Sure, I can see how a Christian baker might feel uncomfortable making a cake for a gay wedding.

Still, they won’t give an inch on what they see as the essential principle at stake: When you’re in business to serve the public, you have to accommodate all of the public. And that’s as far as their thinking goes.

It is -- to be charitable -- as far as their thinking is likely to go, given the irreligious character of the current intellectual atmosphere. Let’s face it, moral philosophy isn’t a widely shared interest just now. Even churchgoers often find it difficult to express their moral perspective cogently. They might say something like: What about the Christian baker? Doesn’t he have rights too? But they find it hard to specify what it is that gives the baker his rights or why those rights matter.

Let me take a stab at explaining why the Indiana law, and similar statutes in 28 other states as well as the federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act, are necessary and justified.

An anecdote:

I once got into a discussion with a colleague about the relative harmfulness of abortion and same-sex marriage. Our conversation was more than academic; it touched on certain business practices of his company (just how it did this is beside the point, but trust me, our exchange was relevant). My colleague maintained that, while he opposed same-sex marriage, he didn’t see that it would ever trump abortion in the harm it could do, because abortion takes a human life. I responded that, while there’s no denying the murderous evil of abortion, same-sex marriage is actually more corrosive of society because it impinges on religious rights in general. My rationale:

If you decide to have an abortion, you commit a sin that involves yourself and a few people close to you, especially those who might have encouraged or assisted you in getting the abortion. While your act may have damaging consequences for your family and social relationships -- and God knows, the cumulative impact of abortion has been broadly corrupting (you don’t have to look very far to see its negative effects on society) -- the sin at the heart of this act remains localized.

Marriage, on the other hand, touches all aspects of society through a vast web of legal rights, privileges and acknowledgments. The relationship you’ve entered into is protected by law and must be legally recognized by everyone -- your relatives, your banker, your insurance broker, your landlord, your doctor, your undertaker, everyone -- even those who might have some objection to it, moral or otherwise.

Therefore, no matter how much a person might object to same-sex marriage -- might see it as sinful -- he or she could easily become entangled in somebody else’s sin. And even if the aspect of legal compulsion tends to mitigate their guilt, they will likely consider themselves, at the least, morally compromised by what others have done. This is a concept that supporters of same-sex marriage would dismiss as sectarian and petty. To them what seems self-evident -- indeed, what strikes them as morally imperative -- is that they should be able to demand and receive any wedding cake they’re willing to pay for.

To the Christian baker, on the other hand, this is a profound assault on conscience.Same-sex marriage supporters don’t see it that way: The baker’s just making an arbitrary value judgment against homosexuality, they’ll insist. (Of course, they won’t use the term homosexuality. They’ll say something like: being free to love whomever one chooses.) That’s why the baker thinks same-sex marriage is a sin. If it weren’t for his bigoted attitude, there wouldn’t be any problem.

But this is not so. The baker’s view isn’t arbitrary at all. The sinfulness of homosexual acts is a fundamental teaching of the religious body to which he has attached himself, which makes it something more than an individual moral whim (or personal prejudice). And in any event, the baker is perfectly entitled to make such a value judgment, just as he’s perfectly free to attach himself to the religion of his choice. The Constitution guarantees him those freedoms.

Employing the law to compel his complicity in someone else’s sinful behavior -- as he and his church define it -- does not advance rights. It advances tyranny. More than that, it becomes what you might call a kind of moral rape. (Now don’t get cute; you know I’m not suggesting there are types of rape that aren’t immoral. I mean a rape of someone’s conscience.)

Does this sound overblown? I don’t wish to diminish the trauma of sexual assault. Not at all. But there’s a valid analogy here.

What is physical rape but forcing a woman into a profoundly personal act that’s central to her self-identity, her sense of moral worth, and the commitments she’s chosen to make in her life -- and which should only be assented to voluntarily? We judge it as evil when someone compels her submission by force. We call it violating her. Those who advocate compelling our Christian baker to participate in a same-sex wedding cannot see that using the law in this way is equally a violation. What they wish to do is precisely what, in another context, they would claim is the great sin of the Church: imposing beliefs and standards on others.

Yet this is what the gay lobby is insisting on: forced violation of conscience. And they want it not because they like wedding cake, but because they wish to gain religious validation for relationships which, until very recently, none of the historical religions has ever accepted as legitimate.

Their means of accomplishing this is to force believers to behave as if they approve of same-sex marriage, or at least don’t care one way or the other. And it is in response to the gay lobby’s heavy-handed efforts in this regard -- the lawsuits, the boycotts, the personal slanders, and all the rest -- that Indiana has enacted the Religious Freedom Restoration Act.

Despite what is being claimed, RFRA does not give religious believers a license to discriminate against gays or anybody else. There are protections on the books against that. It merely assures people of faith that their consciences and their religious practices will not be burdened by state law unless there is a “compelling state interest” to justify it -- and then only to the minimum degree necessary to meet that compelling interest.

That’s the purpose common to all the versions of RFRA around the country. And this, it seems to me, is the only legitimate way to advance rights. Even the rights of gays, who might someday -- when the intellectual atmosphere has turned against them -- find themselves in need of their own conscience protections.

Bill Kassel is a writer, communications consultant, and media producer. His essays and random rants can be found online at: www.billkassel.com.