Last week, the country was treated to two grand, sweeping statements on no less than the concept of freedom.
They came in two different forms, and aimed to suit two different purposes. Although they both referenced big events in our nation’s history, they argued diametrically opposed points of view.
The former, a written legal ruling striking down Virginia’s prohibition on same-sex marriage, invoked the words of the Republican Party’s founding father, Abraham Lincoln. The latter, a speech by Gov. Bobby Jindal delivered at the site dedicated to the modern conservative movement’s patron saint, Ronald Reagan Presidential Foundation and Library, was billed as an exposé on “the silent war on religious liberty.” And frankly, one was stirring and convincing, and the other cynical, and divisive.
The ruling by federal Judge Arenda Wright Allen, which overturned a popularly passed constitutional amendment similar to Louisiana’s, placed the fight for legalized same-sex marriage squarely within the arc of the country’s ongoing expansion of civil and personal rights. In coming down on the side of couples who seek equal government benefits, parental rights and other things available to opposite-sex couples, she leaned on the constitutional equal protection clause, changing attitudes and a rapidly shifting legal environment since the U.S. Supreme Court invalidated the federal Defense of Marriage Act.
“America has pursued a journey to make and keep our citizens free. This journey has never been easy, and at times has been painful and poignant. The ultimate exercise of our freedom is choice,” she wrote. “The reality that marriage rights in states across the country have begun to be extended to more individuals fails to transform such a fundamental right into some ‘new’ creation. Plaintiffs ask for nothing more than to exercise a right that is enjoyed by the vast majority of Virginia’s adult citizens.”
Out in California, Jindal cited the fight over gay marriage, as well as government-mandated contraceptive insurance coverage, to draw a strikingly different conclusion.
To him, the people whose freedom is threatened are not those denied equal rights under the law, but those who find those people distasteful.
Under the guise of religious freedom, Jindal ignored the quest of parents who want to make sure they can care for their kids if something happens to their partners, of taxpaying citizens who chafe at being denied government rights and protection available to their heterosexual peers. Instead, he claimed the most persecuted parties are the florists, bakers and photographers who might be asked to decorate, cater or record for posterity some couple’s happy occasion even if they have a religious exception to the union.
In insisting that his assertion was something people on both sides of the gay marriage debate could agree on, he clearly attempted to sidestep a politically incorrect outward declaration of bigotry. But the effect is the same: He may not have espoused the prejudice, but he sided with those who want the freedom to practice it, while ignoring the competing, compelling rights of the controversy’s central players.
Jindal even drew on the same history as Wright Allen to support his argument. He called the battle he identified as “a war against the spirit that motivated abolitionism,” and “a war against the faith that motivated the civil rights struggle.”
Let’s pause for a moment to consider this history. Of course religious faith was a vital part of the both the abolitionist and civil rights movements. So too, though, were government guarantees of the freedom those movements’ leaders sought.
In the case of civil rights, public accommodation laws that required goods and services be provided to all were vital to enshrining progress. Restaurant and hotel operators of the day may not have liked being ordered to receive all customers, but the right to be served was deemed far more important, and rightly so.
Besides, didn’t some slavery proponents and segregationists also cite religion to justify their positions? Did the government persecute them when it freed the slaves and enacted civil rights laws?
Rather than Jindal, it was Wright Allen who drew a direct line between the higher principles of the civil rights movement by quoting Mildred Loving, whose interracial marriage violated Virginia law until she and her husband Richard sued and won.
“We made a commitment to each other in our love and lives, and now had the legal commitment, called marriage, to match,” she wrote on the landmark decision’s 40th anniversary in 2007. “I believe all Americans, no matter their race, no matter their sex, no matter their sexual orientation, should have that same freedom to marry. Government has no business imposing some people’s religious beliefs over others.”
Stephanie Grace can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.