It’s socially stressful when fundamental rights come into conflict, but sometimes the resolution is clear. It was clear when the government forbade racial discrimination and it is similarly clear in President Obama’s executive order banning discrimination against gays by government contractors. The country is at a watershed moment in its comprehension of homosexuality and there should be no turning back. Obama was right to sign the order.
The issue has churned up in the turbulence created by the Supreme Court’s decision in the Hobby Lobby case. There, a divided court ruled that certain closely held businesses could be exempted from a law requiring them to provide birth control coverage in their employee health plans. Predictions then were that the ruling could open a Pandora’s box of objections – What about blood transfusions? What about vasectomies? – and it didn’t take long for them to crop up.
Some religious groups wanted Obama to carve out an exception to give a pass to religious organizations that object to homosexuality as a sin. Obama stood firm, saying it was unacceptable that being gay is still a firing offense in many places in the United States. Ending that discrimination is broadly seen today as a matter of basic human rights. No one would think of allowing an exemption to religious organizations that objected to hiring African-Americans.
That might not happen today, but it would have in the not-so-distant past, when people who thought of themselves as religious found biblical authority to justify slavery, Jim Crow laws and other offenses against humanity. Comprehension of our existence evolves and what was accepted as fact at one time can be rejected at a later time. So it was with our understanding of slavery and other forms of racial bigotry, and so it is today regarding homosexuality. Increasing numbers of people understand homosexuality not as a choice but an orientation, one that is not at all strange but rather a normal part of the human condition.
Even then, though, not everyone agrees. For many, homosexuality is simply and unavoidably sinful. There is an answer, too, for them – one that was once provided by no less an authority than the Rev. Billy Graham, who once wondered why sexual sin is considered so much worse than other sins. It is a peculiar focus, given all the other ways humans may fall short of what religion demands and the willingness of others to forgive or at least not to make too big an issue out of them.
The world has changed and once again – as it was with racial discrimination – it is up to religion to catch up and emphatically not for government to endorse an intolerable discrimination. That day has passed.
Obama has made documented efforts in his presidency to protect religious freedom, and churches remain able to hire ministers as they see fit under the First Amendment’s protection of religious freedom.
If someone wants to object to this executive order, let the matter be litigated – and then watch as it becomes an issue in the country’s political campaigns.