Gay marriage, gender identity and the future of religious dissent

May 28, 2015

By Charles C. Haynes
Inside the First Amendment 

     Even LGBT activists were surprised by the margin of victory last week when 62% of Irish voters approved a referendum legalizing same-sex marriage — making Ireland the first country in the world to do so by popular vote.

     The percentage of the Irish vote mirrors public opinion in the United States. A Gallup poll released on May 19 found that 60% of the American people now favor same-sex marriage. Just two decades ago, that number was only 27%.

     The rapid shift in public support for gay marriage and LGBT civil rights in Europe and the U.S. has left religious conservatives scrambling to put spokes in the fast-moving wheel of social change.

     At the same time the Irish were voting, a magistrate and former magistrate in North Carolina were filing suit to challenge the state's requirement that all magistrates conduct same-sex marriage ceremonies in the same manner as other marriage ceremonies. The lawsuit seeks religious liberty exemptions for magistrates with religious objections to gay marriage.

     That same week, religious conservatives in the Louisiana Legislature tried and failed to pass a bill designed to protect religious business owners who don't want to serve same-sex weddings. Gov. Bobby Jindal was reduced to issuing an executive order that is much more limited in scope and, critics charge, may violate the state's constitution.

     Worried about backlash against Jindal's action, New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu countered by issuing his own executive order reaffirming the city's commitment to prevent discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation.

     Meanwhile in Fairfax County, Virginia this week, conservative religious groups are fighting to stop a new sex education curriculum in one of the country's largest school districts.

     If, as expected, the curriculum is approved in late June, students will be taught that sexuality is defined as a spectrum of differences — heterosexuality, bisexuality and homosexuality — that may or may not change within an individual's lifetime. The curriculum also explores non-conforming gender identities.

     Earlier this month, the school district voted to add gender identity to its nondiscrimination policy, a decision that also sparked protests from some conservative Christian parents and pastors.

     Evangelist Franklin Graham used Facebook to express outrage over the changes in Fairfax County. "School districts should not allow this poison anywhere near the classroom," Graham wrote. "Wicked" policies and proposals such as those in Fairfax, he argued, result from school officials not upholding biblical principles.

     Lawsuits, executive orders and heated Facebook posts may stir the passions of many religious conservatives, but such tactics are unlikely to reverse the tide of public support for gay marriage and LGBT civil rights.

     Once the 60% threshold is crossed, there's no turning back. As Dublin's Archbishop put it after the Irish vote, "the church needs to do a reality check."

     Religious conservatives would be much better served if they took a page from Utah's book and actually sat down with the other side.

     The agreement reached in Utah earlier this spring isn't perfect, but it goes a long way toward protecting LGBT people from discrimination while simultaneously providing meaningful exemptions for religious individuals and groups.

     Of course, not all of the particulars of the Utah solution would work in other states — but the Utah spirit of dialogue and willingness to find common ground could be replicated anywhere.

     As events unfold in North Carolina, Louisiana, Virginia and other states, religious conservatives clinging to a give-nothing-but-expect-everything strategy will get nowhere. Support for religious exemptions and protections will only be won by first acknowledging the need to protect LGBT civil rights.

     At the same time, proponents of gay marriage and LGBT civil rights would be wise to avoid pushing a get-everything-but-give-nothing strategy. Sixty percent is a solid majority — but 40% represents a lot of people. After all, when the culture-war dust settles, we still have to live and work together as citizens of one nation.

     In other words, our rights are best guarded when we stand up for the rights of others — including those with whom we deeply disagree.

Charles C. Haynes is vice president of the Newseum Institute and executive director of the Religious Freedom Center. E-mail: