When Abstaining Isn’t

There’s been an unpleasant little episode playing out at IUPUI, where I teach. Although both Indiana University and IUPUI have officially come out in opposition to HJR6–passage of which would make it incredibly difficult to recruit first-rate faculty–the Executive Committee of IUPUI’s Staff Council recently decided to abstain, and remain neutral.

As the name suggests, the Staff Council is an organization of staff–the administrative assistants, IT experts, development professionals and others without whom the university simply couldn’t operate. And evidently (unlike the situation with faculty, virtually all of whom oppose the measure), some staff members support HJR6.  So the Executive Committee–without a staff vote and in what I take to be an effort to avoid controversy–decided to sit this one out.

The problem is, there are some things you can’t sit out. There are some issues–and this is one of them–where taking “no position” is taking a position.

We don’t think kindly these days about the white Southerners who decided to “stay neutral” about segregation, or the whites (North and South) who “stayed neutral” about discrimination in housing and on the job.

When you say “Well, maybe black children should be entitled to go to school with white ones, but a lot of my neighbors think blacks are inferior and I don’t want to piss off my neighbors so I’ll just stay quiet and accept the status quo,” you are endorsing that status quo. When you say “I know gay people already can’t marry in Indiana, but some of my colleagues want to make sure we outlaw civil unions too, and I don’t want to argue with them,” you are endorsing the legitimacy of your colleagues’ anti-equality position.

I understand that some Christians–certainly not all, or these days even most–consider homosexuality a sin. That is their right. Their churches have a right to preach that doctrine, a right to refuse to marry same-sex couples, to write letters to editors and to fulminate to their family members at Thanksgiving. But in our constitutional system, they should not have a right to deny gay people equal treatment under the law, and (however grudgingly and inconsistently) most courts, government institutions and everyday Americans have come to agree.

The right to equal treatment by civil authority is more than a constitutional requirement; it is a moral touchstone of American culture. It’s not something one can be neutral about.

Refusing to engage–abstaining from the struggle in an effort to placate everyone–satisfies no one. It’s cowardice–and betrayal.