Why Manners Matter In Fights Over Gay Rights And Religious License

CREDIT: AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin

Jo Beaudry was among those who rallied against Arizona's SB 1062 in recent weeks.

At the end of a column this weekend on what he sees as an inevitable Supreme Court ruling making marriage equality the uniform law of the land, Ross Douthat pauses to consider the environment religious conservatives may face going forward. “Christians had plenty of opportunities — thousands of years’ worth — to treat gay people with real charity, and far too often chose intolerance. (And still do, in many instances and places.)” he writes. “So being marginalized, being sued, losing tax-exempt status — this will be uncomfortable, but we should keep perspective and remember our sins, and nobody should call it persecution.”

We can parse Douthat’s views on policy and his perspective on a culture that’s changing rapidly around him. But what I think part of what’s striking about this framework is that it acknowledges that the questions at stake are not just ones of law, but of manners and of the extent to which we’re willing to treat our neighbors with kindness. The history of the modern gay rights movement has involved startlingly quick advances in public policy. But it’s also a story of radical shifts in private behavior, of parents who might have once cast out their children embracing them at their weddings, instead. And just as it’s appropriate to discuss what’s good law and policy, it’s worthwhile for us to have a conversation about how we behave towards one another, too.

The law recently vetoed by Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer, a Republican, is a perfect opportunity for this sort of consideration. In the absence of SB1062, the bill she rejected on the grounds it would make her state appear backwards (some events scheduled for the state had already been cancelled, or were in danger of cancellation), Arizona business owners would still be able to discriminate against lesbian and gay customers. They just won’t be able to invoke their religious beliefs as a defense if they’re sued for discrimination.

In other words, instead of bluntly telling customers that they don’t, as a matter of practice, bake cakes for or take photographs of the weddings of same-sex couples, such business owners might have to arrive at a more diplomatic solution. I’m not advocating simply lying, if that’s a position that business owners who interpret literally the Biblical commandment against bearing false witness find objectionable. Instead, I think it’s reasonable for business owners who don’t want to serve gay clients and same-sex couples to accept that they may have to inconvenience themselves and accept some financial losses to fulfill all of their competing obligations. If you don’t want to work an event, say you’re unavailable and make yourself so, rather than booking another job. If an easy way to exclude yourself from being asked to work events you find uncomfortable is to not work at a certain venue, then don’t take jobs there. Is this a set of circumstances that will send homophobia underground, making it harder to detect and target, or simply avoid? Perhaps. But it also seems like a reasonable set of adjustments for religious conservatives to accept.

If you sell baked goods or take photographs for a living, it’s neither rude or an imposition for a customer to solicit your business. But if a couple comes into your business, flush with excitement about their upcoming nuptials, what sort of person do you have to be to not just turn down their business and inconvenience them, but to use the opportunity to shame them, or to make it clear that you find them distasteful or objectionable? Is there actually a religious obligation in place not just to hew to the principles that you find important, but to cause discomfort or embarrassment to people who don’t see those principles as equally important? I understand obligations to proselytize, but as a matter of both strategy and manners, using your business as an intellectual club with which to harry non-believers seems like a poor way to make money and win converts. Self-satisfaction or lording your perceived moral superiority over people you disagree with may be enjoyable, but it is not the same as righteousness and charity.

Or to put it another way, I have a life-threatening tree nut allergy. While I have to be clear and forceful in explaining to people not just what I can eat, but which practices might lead to cross-contamination that could make me ill, I don’t have to forbid everyone around me from eating nuts in order to actually preserve my safety. Long years of training means I’m slightly nervous when there are chocolates with nuts in them on top of my refrigerator, or when someone who’s eaten something with nuts waves a fork in my direction at the table. But I’m willing to stop eating a communal dish that’s been contaminated, or to preserve my dining partners’ options, balancing my security with their enjoyment of a meal.

This is what being mannerly is, assessing the difference between your needs and your comforts, and then weighing them against what everyone else needs and wants. And when it comes to gay rights, a willingness by conservatives to be kinder to LGBT people, in both policy and private business might reap a corresponding charity. This is not to say that LGBT people will ever be comfortable being told that they and their relationships are lesser and fallen, nor should good manners require them to submit to such assessments of their lives in polite company.

But in a world where gay couples aren’t fighting for access to the legal benefits and responsibilities of marriage, where there are members of the clergy willing and enthusiastic to perform their ceremonies and vendors excited for the business opportunities that their weddings represent, such clashes may become less common. Businesses that develop specialities in, say, catering church halls, or providing wedding attire and photography for modest couples, may become an established but niche part of the market, rather than an attempt to lock LGBT people out of it altogether. And businesses that treat gay couples with care and consideration will earn reputations that help them attract their own customer bases. Whether there will be enough customers to keep businesses that cater to the specific needs of religious conservative couples alive is a separate question, and one people who want to simultaneously refuse to serve gay customers and succeed financially will have to reckon with. But that’s a question of economics, not of religious freedom.