Gays versus God – the mutual tolerance option

The Victorian government has introduced legislation unwinding Labor changes to anti-discrimination law. Among the items proposed to be repealed is a law that would have required religious organisations not to discriminate against people whose lifestyles or beliefs were contrary to those mandated by a religion. A Jakob Quilligan wrote to his local Liberal MP objecting to the change, as reported in the Sunday Age:

It is absurd that a government would excuse or pardon one groups’ discrimination against others just because it was done of the basis of their particular spiritual beliefs.

Quilligan, who is gay, thinks that he may be discriminated against by a religious employer.

While I share Quilligan’s assumption that religious objections to homosexuality are misguided, I do not share his opposition to these amendments. What is needed is some mutual toleration. As Jonathan Rauch argued recently,

The gay rights movement will have to show unusual foresight to be an exception [to the rule that minority groups make mistakes as they achieve majority support]. Our every instinct will be to press our advantage, exploit our momentum, and drive the other side into the sea. The straight world has ginned up any and every shabby excuse to hurt gay people, with organized religion often leading the way. And now we’re supposed to be tolerant?

Well, yes. As gays become a majority [ie, have the support of most people], the burden of toleration—and it is a burden—shifts to us. This is the most difficult adjustment a minority rights movement can make.

What we have here is a high degree of mutual incomprehension driven by core aspects of identity. On the religious side, how could a man be sexually attracted to another man? How could they act contrary to the Bible’s teachings? On the gay side, how could something that they cannot change, something that can lead to loving relationships, be the basis for denying them opportunities open to others?

Through most of history, the more powerful side in these conflicts has seen the solution as to declare themselves right and to crush the losers. This almost inevitably led to persecution and conflict. The genius of liberal toleration was to say that we don’t need to decide who is right. We don’t have to like each other or agree with each other, we just have to put up with each other. Each can have their own institutional space where their own rules apply, with a neutral state.

Switching from the state beating up gays on behalf of religion to beating up religion on behalf of gays isn’t progress. It’s intolerance with the sides switched.

16 Responses to “Gays versus God – the mutual tolerance option

  • 1
    May 9th, 2011 07:52

    I abhor the current situation of both sides screaming at each other and refusing to engage in dialogue. Tolerance doesn’t persist when each side misrepresents and demonizes each other without some level of understanding. It is because of this that some actions by fundamentalist organizations which make me very uncomfortable (and should have some legal limits).

    Although some instances of organizational discrimination are the right of religion, there are some actions which clearly cause harm. I’m thinking of the recent cases of young people being excluded from school events because they want to bring a same-sex partner. It is difficult to view this as anything but spiteful especially given the poor mental health of young people (especially GLB young people). Although I largerly I agree that adults may be a different matter.

    I’m of the view that tolerance can only flourish within a culture of civility. The form of discrimination described above is more than mere freedom of association, it is the kind of ignorance completely at odds with a tolerant society. The Liberal MP expressed this same ignorance in his comparison with gays and lesbians with dangerous driving and pedophilia <– clear comparisons designed to vilify gay people (again his right, but clearly these lies are counter to classical liberal values).

    I'm all for the right of religious organizations to employee 'Christians' by whatever standard they wish, but certain circumstances need to be understood within the context of a civil and tolerant society.

  • 2
    May 9th, 2011 09:24

    I understand the appeal of the sentiments you are trying to convey, that is that we can live in peace and respect one another’s hang ups… because in the long run as long as we don’t infringe on one another’s rights it’s not important…

    But time and time again I see culture as a driving force of society, and this is another battleground in defining our collective culture… and caught in the middle are real people.

    I disagree with this shift, my understanding is that Labor allowed sufficient leeway to allow religious groups to behave how they liked.

    Best of luck with the blog.

  • 3
    Rajat Sood
    May 9th, 2011 09:28

    Without wanting to derail the thread, Andrew, how does this view (with which I agree) gel with your support of gay marriage? Is your view that because marriage is at least no longer a religious institution, it shouldn’t be unavailable to gays?

  • 4
    Geoff Robinson
    May 9th, 2011 09:34

    But religious organizations are funded by the state in their health/education activities they are part of the state. They are funded by taxation raised by state coercion and they exercise coercive powers over individuals (being Austinian here). There may be good reasons for not running these services through line bureaucracies but they are part of the state. The state is not being neutral here. The MP in question would have once argued that homosexuality should be prohibited by law he knows wants to punish gay people by reducing their employment opportunities in a growing sector of the economy. If religious organizations want to discriminate let them rely on donations of the faithful to fund their activities.

  • 5
    May 9th, 2011 10:25

    Kirby on “tolerance”
    “I’m a little bit suspicious of the word tolerance. It’s a rather condescending notion, isn’t it, that you tolerate somebody else. Acceptance is the notion that you just accept that people are different and have different views and we’ve all got to live together.”

    Segregating gay people from religious communities is not accepting them, and that’s what the gay movement is looking towards.

    More on ‘tolerating the intolerant’

    “the solution as to declare themselves right and to crush the losers. This almost inevitably led to persecution and conflict. ”

    I don’t think this is a fair analogy. This is not a war between the GLBTI movement and religion. The gay movement does not seek to crush religion. The gay movement does not seek to persecute religion. We aim to bring mainstream religion towards a place of accepting homosexuality. Homophobia is not a core element of any religion, and encouraging progressive views within the church on these issues is not an attempt to stifle religious freedom.

    I personally will tolerate religion. I will never ever ever tolerate homophobia, and any suggestion that I should is ludicrous.

  • 6
    Andrew Norton
    May 9th, 2011 10:28

    Geoff – In schools (the place where this issue arises most) I would take a different view. Parents forego much of their entitlement to state support for education to choose a school that offers a different religious-cultural-social environment. And from my more libertarian perspective, in many cases this is the state confiscating parent’s money via taxes and then giving it back with strings attached.

    Jarryd – I support civility, but not via state action. Shaw said some silly things (though he was right to pick up on the inflated number of gay people). But this has been dealt with via Sunday Age ridicule without affecting anyone’s right to say what they like.

    Rajat – I support amending the marriage act, but it will be up to individual churches as to whether they perform gay marriages or not.

  • 7
    May 9th, 2011 12:09

    There is an excellent sentiment behind this blog post – tolerance. And while the majority may not be in favour of the other team, the ball is still being played in the half of the field where it started.

    The rules of the game need to be team-neutral. They are not.

    It seems that you have defined a scale from “no gay rights” on one side to “everybody equal”. I contend that is only half the scale. A full examination would be “no gay rights” to “no religious rights”. The middle ground, i.e. tolerance, would then be “everybody equal”.

    (forgive the loaded phrases, trying to simplify here)

    I contend exemptions from equal rights still provide a non-tolerance option. If the gays were to propose laws akin to “religious people may not do x” or “homosexual organisations earning profits should not be taxed” then that would be them moving from tolerance to the crusading discriminators.

    I love the fact that these arguments show some forethought for a happier time when both sides are on an equal playing field, but to suggest now is a time for the present underdogs to lay off and slack on the game?

    Surely the middle ground should be akin to “the best person for the job, on quantifiable skills, should do the job”.

  • 8
    May 9th, 2011 14:03

    “Parents forego much of their entitlement to state support for education to choose a school that offers a different religious-cultural-social environment.”
    Are you going to put hospitals in the same category? Or what about patients in hospitals? No gay patients in this hospital because it’s a Catholic one?
    I also don’t see why schools are an exemption here even if they wern’t state funded (state funding simply makes it worse in my books) — it’s not like gender identity is a characteristic especially relevant to teaching, and I doubt most kids would know this information about their teachers in any case. Thus unless this identity somehow affects some aspect of their teaching, it’s just blatant discrimination and these laws are simply a way to institutionalize it. I couldn’t blame gay people for complaining about it — If I didn’t get a job that had no inherent religious component to it based on the fact that I wasn’t religious, I’d be pissed off too.

  • 9
    Andrew Norton
    May 10th, 2011 04:43

    My position is that people should have the freedom to create and preserve institutions which reflect their beliefs, preferences, or whatever else they find imporant. (Including gay bars without women.)

    The further away the association gets from those core beliefs and preferences the harder it will be to justify excluding people. But I don’t see that a state authority is needed to second-guess these decisions. Internal debate and public criticism can sort it out (eg the gay date to school dances issue).

  • 10
    May 10th, 2011 11:40

    “My position is that people should have the freedom to create and preserve institutions which reflect their beliefs, preferences, or whatever else they find imporant”
    There are innumerable places around the world where this doesn’t lead to wonderful outcomes. Just in our neighborhood, for example, try looking at Malaysia, which is pretty moderate in the scheme of how bad it can get. If you’re not a Muslim there (which is very well correlated with ethnicity), you can’t work in the government. I guess they’re just preserving their institutions by your account and therefore this is okay. This sort of thing has of course led to riots, vast numbers of well educated people leaving the country and so on. I think it reasonable to suggest that this was a big negative for a very long time in Malaysia (which is one of the reasons they are finally trying to change it all, with great difficulty due to the entrenched nature of things there). This is why I don’t think you should be able to discriminate on things in workplaces that are not inherently to do with your job. Of course, it’s not as bad in Aus, and perhaps just schools and hospitals won’t make much difference (and I certainly prefer the exemption model we have now than no laws at all about it), but if I was, say, a minority religion and couldn’t get a job because of it, I’d be annoyed (I wonder what percentage of our hospitals are nominally Christian, for example?)..
    There are of course essentially benign social institutions (clubs etc.), and I’m not as fussed at them being more exclusive in terms of their membership. Even then, however, I’m still not convinced it can be all-or-nothing (although it’s hard to define the bounds). The problem is that if it happens too much, you end up with social out-groups that have every reason to hate you (e.g., some of the disliked groups in France and the UK). This means you end up with a problem in that once this gets entrenched, the groups get discriminated against all over the place, and once this happens, there is of course no reason to believe that they should should care about your laws or social norms anymore (and by the looks of things, some of those groups don’t).

  • 11
    Andrew Norton
    May 10th, 2011 12:22

    I should have stated my position more clearly – the Malaysian example runs against my view that the state should be neutral between the cultural conflicts in its society, ie does not pick one side in either its own practices or its laws.

    Generally speaking, anti-discrimination law becomes politically feasible at the point where it is largely unnecessary anyway, at the point (as in this example) where most people are not concerned by homosexuality or not sufficiently concerned to prejudice their commercial interests or risk social criticism.

    If we were back in the dark ages on attitudes there would be no protection of sexual orientation in the law. Indeed, at the time of the first anti-discrimination laws sexual orientation was not a protected attribute because acting on gay sexual orientation was still a crime in every state.

    The interests of gay people are not seriously harmed by current law (Labor’s amendments haven’t taken effect). It’s time to leave the hapless, harassed Christians and other believers some space.

  • 12
    Shem Bennett
    May 10th, 2011 13:56

    The debate, I guess, surrounds at the minimum whether privately owned “public” spaces should be regulated into providing equal access.

    Clubs and things that require membership are already closed, but Supermarkets? Schools? Hospitals?

    The other debate is on whether or not an institution receiving public funding should be able to discriminate. I’m not sure I like the idea of an exclusive Christian school receiving public funds. Or a secular school that prohibits Christians receiving public funds.

    We all, I think, agree that the state should be difference blind. But should recipients of state funds be required to be difference blind?

    I lean towards saying that things that pay tax should be allowed to discriminate (businesses) but things that receive tax shouldn’t (that includes churches!) I think it’s probably best in the state only sponsors difference blind organisations, but permits discrimination even by “public” organisations that are privately funded.

  • 13
    May 11th, 2011 08:04

    “Internal debate and public criticism can sort it out”

    Ah, yes, but doesn’t this contradict your early post? If I’m criticising a catholic school for it’s beliefs about homosexuality, you can hardly call me tolerant can you? If I’m going about socially isolating organisations that are homophobic, this is the opposite of ‘putting up with each other’!

  • 14
    May 11th, 2011 09:18

    lomlate – I think Andrew would be all for open criticism, protest and other ways of trying to initiatives institutional change. Just not forced change through state intervention.

    Andrew- To what extent should the age of those discriminated be factored into this? From reading your blog I see you as a more ‘moderate’ classical liberal i.e not likely to push for reform of child-labor laws or any of the like in Australia.

    Shouldn’t the fact they we are not talking about rational adults but rather children which have a limited ability to ‘freely associate’ on a contractual basis, give more justification for the attachment of conditions to government funding?

  • 15
    Andrew Norton
    May 11th, 2011 10:10

    Jarryd – That is my response to lomlate.

    With schools, the issue is more about staff than students, and more about other forms of sexual behaviour (living together without being married, abortions) than homosexuality.

    In practice, my understanding is that religious schools do not see the occasional student who comes out before leaving as a major challenge to the school ethos in itself. However, they do tend to discipline any overt sexuality, straight or more rarely gay.

  • 16
    May 13th, 2011 20:20

    Fair points. My position allows for all differences. Thus, gay bars should be able to ban heterosexuals (and do), while a church should be able to refuse communion to actively gay people.

    Likewise, a Muslim principal should have the right to sack a lesbian teacher while a lesbian collective should have the right to ban Islamists.

    Incidentally, denominational-centric Christians already discriminate against Christians, and gays often discriminate against gays, as domestic abuse statistics reveal. Thus, Quilligan’s manufactured outrage is very selective and simplistic.