Don’t confuse law and belief as cultural winds blow

Larry Levin

BY LARRY LEVIN

Here’s the most important thing you need to know about gay marriage: In a recent poll, almost 70 percent of 18-34 year old Americans approve of it.

Why is that the most important thing? Because in many ways it’s yesterday’s issue. The societal tectonic shift has occurred. Our kids by and large simply don’t care about the gender of two people who want to establish a union of love and commitment to each other.

But, you might say, majorities don’t make something right. And you’d be absolutely correct. Something can be dead wrong regardless of how many or how few folks support it.

But that’s not why I say the statistic is the most important thing. It’s the most important thing because absent any radical demographic data showing some substantial harm to the nation in gay marriage, it’s here to stay, and will come on board in some form, by some name, with the same fits and starts as occur in other social evolutions. (If this makes you angry and you want to shoot the messenger, I’ll ask you not to; just check back with me in about 15 years and we’ll compare notes.)

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The current fracas is nothing more than the raging of a storm like those we’ve observed at other stages of American history. Largescale protections have derived to individuals on the basis of race, ethnicity, religion, gender and disability after similar stresses.

I’m not here to diss anyone’s belief that marriage is between a man and a woman. It’s what the Tanakh was describing when it referred to marriage, it’s what the great swath of human history says, and it’s what our experience was as a society until the past two or three decades. It’s your right to continue to believe it, and modern Judaism reflects all sorts of different opinions about the arching rainbow of LGBT issues.

Is it worth raging against the tide if you disagree with it? That’s between you and your principles, but in the aforementioned civil rights battles, with few exceptions (e.g., hiring preferences), it’s ultimately been a losing argument to say that individuals should be denied the same rights as their fellow citizens based on an innate characteristic.

Some detractors of gay marriage will argue that even if sexual preference is biological, and even if one ought possess equal rights as a result, it’s not a right that people should necessarily act upon. In other words, one ought resist the urge to adopt behavior (for instance, homosexuality) consistent with the trait because it’s somehow morally objectionable. And since the behavior is from that perspective wrong, the recognition of a public right (i.e., marriage) that embraces that behavior is wrong as well.

You certainly won’t hear me making that argument. But I will just as certainly support the right of any individual of age to freely associate with any group – religious, political or otherwise – that chooses to forego a particular behavior. That happens all the time. We have lots of groups in our society that choose to reject any number of behaviors. Sex before marriage, for instance. If someone wants to voluntarily be part of a group that limits an activity, and limiting that activity is not proven to be socially dangerous (e.g., refusing to obtain immunizations), then more power to him or her.

Yet government doesn’t get to say that a behavior is harmful to all simply because some private group of people has determined it is. It is not government’s role to play traffic cop in the absence of evidence that shows the behavior has a markedly harmful effect on a person (civil) or society (criminal).

Religions, of course, can play traffic cop in all sorts of different ways, because a religion is predicated upon a belief structure that can be quite different from the precepts of public policy. They can readily choose to adopt or reject a new standard, and to express an opinion about it, as long as they don’t actively advocate hate or violence toward those that embrace it.

We don’t want to have laws that try to accommodate every belief structure, for several reasons. We don’t want to be subject to religious beliefs with which we disagree (thus, America was founded). We don’t want to impose our will about all issues on all other people (unless we are tyrannical). And we don’t want to equate religion, our spiritual self, with government, the place where we create common denominators to allow us to peacefully coexist.

So now we have a disconnect: Public law should not discriminate yet should not prohibit private choice. Private beliefs on enabling the conduct of nontraditional marriages are all over the board. This makes the marriage issue solution difficult: How do we come to grips with a changing social more (approval of couples of any gender) while some still side with a more traditional definition of what comprises a marriage?

It can basically go one of two ways. We leave “marriage” out of the public arena, and see civil unions become the institutional norm, in which we acknowledge rights and responsibilities between two consenting adults and leave anything more to private (religious) groups. Or we see the definition of public marriage reshaped and broadened to include all couples. Notwithstanding the loud, oppositional voices booming on the issue these days, one (or perhaps both) of these models will ultimately become the norm.

When a new generation of adults views the status quo as basic unfairness, resistance is, or will be, pragmatically futile. What older generations try to do now will simply be undone later. Better to work toward a public accommodation and then choose your group’s own private behavior. Disagreement with public policy is always fine, as long as you don’t preach or practice hate. Just as in kindergarten, there’s room in this big tent of life for all of us who play nicely with others.

Larry Levin is Publisher/CEO of the St. Louis Jewish Light.