Morality or Bigotry?

How did the song go? You say “potato” and I say “po-tah-to?”


Marion County Prosecutor Carl Brizzi triggered a modern version of the old standard when he adopted a new office policy providing that employment decisions would be made only on the basis of job performance, and that no one would be discriminated against on the basis of skin color, gender or sexual orientation. From my perspective, this was an entirely appropriate confirmation of the value Americans place on equal treatment before the law. According to Micah Clark and the American Family Association, it was a cowardly acquiescence to the “homosexual agenda” and a “slap in the face” to citizens of Marion County.


Whatever views people hold on the far more volatile issue of same-sex marriage, if polls are to be believed, most Americans are deeply committed to fairness in the workplace and equal treatment before the law. Because it is so difficult to argue that employers ought to be able to fire people just for being gay (or black, Jewish or Christian), those objecting to equal civil rights for gays have asserted that they aren’t really against equal rights—they are against “special rights.”  But it has become quite clear that what they define as “special” is equal rights for gay people.


A couple of weeks ago, the Kansas Supreme Court struck down the sort of law that the American Family Association feels is proper. Kansas had adopted a statute prescribing penalties for statutory rape—consensual sex between two individuals, one of whom is under the age of consent. For heterosexuals, the maximum penalty under the statute is fifteen months. Matthew Limon, a gay teenager convicted of having sex with a younger gay teenager, had already served five years of a seventeen-year sentence.


Let me be very clear: if every single other fact of the offense had been identical, but Matthew had been arrested for heterosexual conduct, he would have served at most fifteen months. He got an extra fifteen years and nine months because he was gay. When the Kansas court ruled that this amounted to unconstitutional discrimination, the decision was met with predictable accusations of “judicial activism.” In language quite similar to Micah Clark’s, a Kansas pastor decried the ruling as “a victory for supporters of a creeping gay-rights agenda.”   


To his credit, the Kansas Attorney-General, a Republican, has said the state is unlikely to appeal, and pointedly noted that when he had served in the legislature, he had voted against the law.


The bottom line in these debates—and in the ongoing City-County Council struggle to include gay people under the City’s Human Relations Ordinance—is quite clear. On one side are those who may or may not approve of homosexuality on religious grounds, but who nevertheless believe that every American should be treated equally in the workplace and by the law. On the other side are those who believe that laws preventing them from punishing or harassing gay people are somehow an “endorsement” of homosexuality.