Friday, April 30, 2010

Things are starting to make sense!

Someone in a local magazine published a tirade against a Catholic church school for expelling a student whose parents were lesbians on the grounds that the entire family had signed a contract saying they believed in, supported, and lived Catholic beliefs. The editor who was writing the editorial concluded that religions need to change because they were violating civil rights.

I thought about that for a long long long time, and it finally dawned on me why that statement was wrong.

It comes down to what civil rights are.  Wikipedia: "Civil and political rights are a class of rights and freedoms that protect individuals from unwarranted action by government and private organizations and individuals and ensure one's ability to participate in the civil and political life of the state without discrimination or repression."

Civil Rights are the rights that ensure we can participate in the civil ("related to being a citizen" or public/political) life. In other words, civil rights are there to guarantee we are not hampered in our ability to participate in our communities and government in a PUBLIC way. They have absolutely NOTHING to do with our ability to participate in PRIVATE organizations and events.

In other words, civil rights cannot be used to stop me from saying "I do not allow murderers in my home, even if they come peacefully." My home is not the public sphere. It is not governmental or "civil" and therefore not controlled by the same laws.

In fact Merriam Webster says, in defining "civil": "of, relating to, or involving the general public, their activities, needs, or ways, or civic affairs as distinguished from special (as military or religious) affairs".

By very definition, the military and religions are EXEMPT from the definition of "civil," and therefore civil rights DO NOT APPLY to religions.

As far as I understand it, private organizations of all kinds, including religions, are allowed to set their own rules of membership. This was recently in front of the Supreme Court actually, debating whether a private organization (a club) being sponsored by a public organization (a public university) was required to function under the rules of a private organization (can exclude members based on beliefs or any other darn requirement they want) or the rules of a public organization (have to follow the rules associated with civil rights).

Separate from that debate, the establishment of rules for private organizations that differ from the rules for public organizations is really important. Why? It protects our rights to peacefully assemble with like-minded individuals. Under the protections given private organizations, for example, a Jewish Synagogue doesn't have to allow Neo-Nazis to participate. Nor does the African Heritage Club have to accept and allow full membership and voting rights to members of the KKK. Nor do Mormons have to allow anti-Mormons (even ex-members) to speak in their meetings or participate in their ceremonies (and, conversely, an anti-Mormon congregation not only has the right to believe in anti-Mormon doctrine, they can bar Mormons from entering their buildings and attending their parties.).
It also protects our rights to believe things that might be reprehensible to other people without getting in trouble for that. That means that the same law that makes it legal for lesbian women to believe in Catholicism and raise their daughter that way makes it legal for neo-nazis or polygamists to believe the things they believe and raise their children to believe as well. This right is sometimes interfered with by the state (as when the YFZ Ranch children were taken by CPS, or in a couple of other cases in the South where children were taken from Neo-Nazi parents solely because of the parents' beliefs).

So, in sum, private organizations don't have to follow civil rights laws because they are, by definition, not civil.

Where do the problems come up?

Well, big businesses are private organizations, but because they function as part of the civic makeup of an area, they do have to follow civil rights. Nobody is debating this. Of COURSE we expect to be able to enter a WalMart or use a gas station, regardless of our race, religion, etc. I don't know the law on this, but I suspect that any business that is incorporated becomes part of the civil makeup of the area and has to follow the civil rights laws.

The problem comes up with VERY small businesses. Sole Proprietorships, to be exact. When you have a woman who makes wedding dresses in her basement for 2 clients a month, or a photographer who takes family and wedding portraits in the park for people, or a florist who works from her back room in her house....which rules apply? Can you force this single person to do things that are offensive to their personal rights and freedoms, like make wedding dresses for lesbian partners? Or do they fall under the private sphere, where they can reject clients for any darn reason they want, and not give the reason? And what about people who don't even own a small business, but are merely hobbyists who take on one wedding dress a YEAR. Can they be forced to make dresses for clients if they don't want to?

I don't know the answer--but I do know it is one of the debates that isn't being talked about in the media much but that actually HAS been an issue.

Can you force a private individual to do something against their personal beliefs in the public sphere because of their job? The answer seems to be yes (a neo-nazi waiter in a restaurant has to serve an African American family that comes in) and no (a Mormon doctor CANNOT be forced to perform an abortion). But the default seems to be yes unless specific laws are passed to protect certain jobs because businesses are part of the public community, and civil rights demand that people have access to them in order to participate in the community at large. But can you force someone to do something against their personal beliefs in the public sphere because of their hobby? The answer seems to be no. They are a private individual, functioning under the rules and laws that govern privacy and personal freedom.

The other problem area is MARRIAGE.

And the reason this is a problem area is marriage is the one place I can think of where private and public completely intersect. Marriage is a civil contract performed by private religious organizations. I can't think of any other civic, governmental action that is performed by completely private organizations that don't get any money from the government (which always comes with strings attached, like supporting civil rights).

So which set of rules apply? Civil or private? You can't, by law, force a religion to do something against their beliefs because they are a private organization (they can accept or reject anyone they want, they can segregate men and women in their meetings, etc.). So, by law, you can't force religions to perform gay marriages (or, for that matter, any other marriages they are opposed to, including bi-racial marriages). On the other hand, if marriage is a civil contract, then all civil rights laws MUST apply, including regarding race. (This is separate from the debate about whether gay marriage is a civil right or not (I realize that, while one side of the debate has latched on to that argument, it hasn't been clarified by law or debated in the public sphere whether or not that's actually TRUE.).)

I suppose it's never been a major, national issue before. Bi-racial couples are likely to leave any congregation that is opposed to their relationship long before the marriage issue comes up. And if they are denied a marriage ceremony by one church, they can get one at another, more progressive church or down at the courthouse. Because marriage is both a religious and a civil contract, both the government and the religions have given access to it. In other words, the religions still maintained their rights because there were other options.

I don't have answers for this one, actually. If the government were to define gay marriage as a civil right, then, according to current tradition, religions would NOT be required to adapt to that--even religious schools and organizations like adoption agencies and charities.

(A side note: The government could, however, continue to put strings attached to the money they give to those organizations, including doing things that are against their religious beliefs (which they can do now. That's not a new thing. Religions that don't want a part of it don't take the money. Period.). It doesn't FORCE the religions to do things they're opposed to...unless they want the money. Consequently, it might put a HUGE number of religious charities out of business, putting a greater responsibility on the government to care for the poor and needy in ways they've proven they're incompetent at.)

But the tenor of the present debates leads me to believe that is not what the gay rights activists have in mind. Either they are confused about what their civil rights actually are (because they don't understand what the civil sphere actually is) or they, like the magazine editor, seem to have in mind the breaking down of private rights and religious rights, making all things public and "civil". And I'm NOT in favor of that. YES, it protects people's rights to believe things I consider awful. But it also protects MY right to believe things other people might find awful (like the right to believe large families with a stay-at-home mother is good for children, and my right to believe in Joseph Smith as a prophet). Who is the person, then, who defines which beliefs are "civilly acceptable" and which are not? This very idea flies in the face of everything America is founded for and hold dear.

On a side note, I personally don't think the homosexual marriage camp and the traditional marriage camp are defining "marriage" the same way, and that needs to be addressed before anything can be decided on the issue. We're all screaming over the fences at each other, using words that sound the same but that we've defined in different ways. This, to me, constitutes the ultimate utter failure of communication and precludes any kind of solution to the problems at all!

1 comment:

Becca B said...

Thank you for this post! Nicely done.