Invidious Discrimination in America?

Legal treatises define “invidious discrimination” as “treating a class of persons unequally in a matter that is malicious, hostile or damaging,” a definition that encompasses traditional religious beliefs, including moral standards and marriage.  In other words, discrimination has not historically been allowed against any faith -- Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist, or any variant of Christianity. In the United States, we honor -- thorough our First Amendment to the Bill of Rights -- the freedom to worship and hold religious beliefs dictated by conscience.

Similarly, we honor the 14th Amendment’s equal protection of all Americans, and perhaps more simply, we respect each other as Americans -- regardless of how we manage our lives, so long as that includes mutual respect. Whatever one thinks about the religious views of the majority on homosexual behavior, or about the idea that same-sex unions codified as “marriage” under state law, we are all Americans. 

But, alas, something simpler and in some ways more heartbreaking than adults debating constitutional question brings me to write this column. You see, a large majority of Americans self-define as people of faith. Within that majority, a vast majority belong to organized, traditional religions and these religions often proscribe homosexuality, including Christianity (Orthodox, Catholic and various protestant churches), Judaism (from the Bible), Islam (Quran), and Buddhism (according to the Dalai Lama). That is the state of play in America today. This produces a question for people of good heart: Are these faiths -- families and individuals -- not also entitled to be free from “invidious discrimination?” 

The answer must be yes, legally and as a matter of conscience. Thus, the irony. Those pressing to widen acceptance of certain sexual behaviors are, in effect, now punishing sincerely-held religious beliefs. Rather than tolerance, the parties asking indulgence from society in their sexual preferences (roughly two percent of the population) are now pressing legal cases that center on intolerance of others’ religious beliefs. 

How can this be?  More to the point, how can this be resolved?  Enter a personal story. Perhaps in this short story, there is an answer -- namely, preserving tolerance for religious convictions. 

A little girl in a schoolhouse in the metropolitan Washington DC area was recently part of a “Diversity Day,” ostensibly dedicated to learning “tolerance.”  So far, so good.  As part of the day, the school commissioned outsiders to come and educate about the correctness of support for the “gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender community.” Put aside the question of whether this topic, and these behaviors, are appropriate for young girls. Focus just on what happened.

At the completion of a session instructing on the normalcy of and need for tolerance for these minority sexual behaviors, a class of young girls was asked to “stand if they supported” this community -- including everything related to their lifestyle. Two young girls in the large class remained sitting.  They were both traditional Christians.  The instructors praised those standing as “strong and intelligent.” One of the sitting girls asked quietly to be excused. 

After a discussion among teachers, the girl was escorted out -- then cross-examined in the hallway. When she tried to explain the basis for her belief as traditional Christian teachings, she was told that her religious views were fine for home and in church, but that at school she had to participate in these “educational” events. The little girl began to cry. 

The teacher instructed her to return to the lecture -- which she did not want to do, having been singled out and feeling “uncomfortable.” The teacher said being “uncomfortable” was part of the “educational” moment. The girl then explained that she could not leave her beliefs at home, since they go with her where she goes. She explained that she is not judgmental, and does not try to change the views of others. But she cannot change inside her what God expects of her. Apparently, this response produced a stalemate. In the presence of another adult who joined the conversation, the initial teacher retreated to expressing disappointment that the girl would not return.  

In short, the girl was singled out. She was singled out for perceived intolerance, ironically for her religious beliefs, which reflected her views of right and wrong. The teacher implied that the child’s faith was unacceptable. She sought to coerce conformity, separating the child from her heart, family, and church. So, the question: Is that where America now is? Is this really where we want this country to go? Parents were later notified that an “incident” had occurred. In the end, the issue was squared through discussion, ironically about deference to differing, strongly held views. But why was that not the starting point? Is this not also a seminal lesson in tolerance, never mind constitutional prerogatives?

In this moment, the national debate was telescoped into one family. The encounter may be coming to a school near you. What does it reveal? People arrive at faith and live faith from different perspectives, rooted in different cultures, life experiences and religious traditions. As Americans, should we be turning on ourselves, teaching our children to reject their hearts, faiths, families and religious convictions? For a preoccupation with sexual preferences?

I think not. To do so would be to sanction invidious discrimination against each other, against those who follow their conscience, who hold in their hearts a sense of what they believe to be right and wrong, reinforced by an established religion of the world, and of America.

None of us has a monopoly on truth. None is therefore entitled -- under our Constitution or most faiths -- to judge the convictions of others. Why can we not leave it at that?  Let us turn down the rhetoric and turn off this “us and them” mentality. Tolerance of one group’s private behaviors and beliefs does not require intolerance of those who hold different beliefs. How about that discussion on a “diversity day?” If we do not learn to live with each other, we will all slide into the pit, or what a friend recently called “a culture of outrage and victimhood,” defaulting to snap judgments on each other, and not generous ones. 

In deference to that little girl’s conscience and courage, let’s pull back on the reins. Let’s not condemn ourselves or misguide our kids, or turn our future into one of reflexive condemnation, especially when the topic is sincerely held religious views.Glibly promoting intolerance in the name of tolerance is a fool’s errand. It is dangerous, especially for a people who must remain united in an increasingly fractious world, true to a moral vision that includes, at its forefront, genuine patience with each other.  

Invidious discrimination, especially against those of religious grounding -- the majority of this country -- should not be permitted, in any direction or for any reason.  The real solution is to cool our jets, one and all. On the next “diversity day” – or whatever day people choose to talk about our nation’s strengths -- maybe the conversation can turn to listening harder to how different families, kids, teachers, and Americans view the world, and trying to understand their personal convictions -- not change them. 

That little girl taught me something. She was strong, true to herself, and to her faith. She was true, without knowing them by name, to principles embodied in our First Amendment. Surrounded by cherry trees, on the wall of the Jefferson Memorial, are these arresting words.  “Almighty God hath created the mind free.  All attempts to influence it by temporal punishments or burthens... are a departure from the plan of the Holy Author of our religion.  No man shall… suffer on account of his religious opinions or belief, but all men shall be free to profess and by argument to maintain, their opinions in matters of religion.” By extension, I think he must have also meant little girls.

Robert B. Charles is a former Assistant Secretary of State, former litigator, and onetime teacher at the Harvard Extension School.  He now runs a consulting firm in Washington DC.

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