Conservative New York Times columnist Ross Douthat depicted business owners who wish to discriminate against gay customers as the real victims in the debate over whether it should be permissible, as a recently vetoed Arizona bill would have authorized, for businesses to deny services to gay people on religious grounds.
In his March 2 column, Douthat conceded the inevitability of marriage equality, contending that once that debate is finished, the question will be whether marriage equality opponents will be able to express their “dissent” by, say, turning gay couples away from their businesses. Even as he urged his fellow Christian conservatives not to “call it persecution” if they're required to treat LGBT people equally, Douthat's entire column attempted to frame the fight for equal treatment as a matter of conservative victimization, rather than fundamental human dignity (emphasis added):
But there's another possibility, in which the oft-invoked analogy between opposition to gay marriage and support for segregation in the 1960s South is pushed to its logical public-policy conclusion. In this scenario, the unwilling photographer or caterer would be treated like the proprietor of a segregated lunch counter, and face fines or lose his business -- which is the intent of recent legal actions against a wedding photographer in New Mexico, a florist in Washington State, and a baker in Colorado.
Meanwhile, pressure would be brought to bear wherever the religious subculture brushed up against state power. Religious-affiliated adoption agencies would be closed if they declined to place children with same-sex couples. (This has happened in Massachusetts and Illinois.) Organizations and businesses that promoted the older definition of marriage would face constant procedural harassment, along the lines suggested by the mayors who battled with Chick-fil-A. And, eventually, religious schools and colleges would receive the same treatment as racist holdouts like Bob Jones University, losing access to public funds and seeing their tax-exempt status revoked.
I am being descriptive here, rather than self-pitying. 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.) 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.
But it's still important for the winning side to recognize its power. We are not really having an argument about same-sex marriage anymore, and on the evidence of Arizona, we're not having a negotiation. Instead, all that's left is the timing of the final victory -- and for the defeated to find out what settlement the victors will impose.
Not only does Douthat's depiction of embattled conservatives trembling in fear of “what settlement the victors will impose” undermine his claim that he's not crying “persecution,” but Douthat's prime example of where “state power” has allegedly been wielded unfairly is bogus.
Note Douthat's use of the passive tense to describe the closing of adoption agencies in Massachusetts and Illinois. What he omits is that Catholic Charities voluntarily shut down its adoption agencies in both states rather than serve same-sex couples. But as the Family Equality Council has noted, religious adoption agencies that don't receive public funds can still discriminate against same-sex couples.
Just as telling is Douthat's flippant dismissal of the notion that there's any parallel between anti-gay discrimination and discrimination targeted at African-Americans. It might be uncomfortable for social conservatives to admit, but it wasn't that long ago that segregationists were citing the Bible to justify their discrimination against black people. Then, as now, bigots sought to hide behind the cloak of religious liberty to justify treating members of minority groups as second-class citizens.
Of course, Douthat assures us that for today's discriminators, it's all about affirming "[t]he conjugal, male-female view of marriage." This is closely related to a talking point commonly used by both anti-gay business owners and their conservative media champions: that they don't have any problem serving gay people, but when it comes to services related to gay marriages, they can't participate in good conscience. However, not only do those same parties often commit slips of the tongue that seem to reveal deeper anti-gay bias, but legislation like Arizona's would allow the refusal of service to any individual - married or not - if that service could be said to violate the provider's religious beliefs.
A world in which such discrimination enjoys state protection is a world that fails to protect the dignity of LGBT people. The implications of such a world were sufficient to give even Fox News pause after the network had encouraged pro-discrimination forces for months, but apparently Douthat has no such qualms.