This weekend Kirsten Powers and Jonathan Merritt stirred up controversy by writing in the Daily Beast that Christians have no biblical basis for claiming that religious belief should allow them to refuse to serve a same-sex wedding:
Before considering legal rights, Christians wrestling with this issue must first resolve the primary issue of whether the Bible calls Christians to deny services to people who are engaging in behavior they believe violates the teachings of Christianity regarding marriage. The answer is, it does not.
Nor does the Bible teach that providing such a service should be construed as participation or affirmation. Yet Christian conservatives continue to claim that it does.
This article was published only a few days after Powers and Merritt posted separate articles (here and here) claiming that discrimination based on sexual orientation is akin to discrimination based on race.
Such claims are often repeated but rarely examined. So let's consider whether race and sexual orientation are similar and equally deserving of legal protections.
Form of the Argument
The argument to make this comparison takes the following form:
Major Premise: A sexual orientation is analogous to the category of race.
Minor Premise: Race is a category protected by anti-discrimination laws.
Conclusion: Therefore, sexual orientation should have the same civil-rights protections as those afforded to race.
The question we will examine is whether the major premise is true. Is sexual orientation analogous to race? Before we can answer that question, we we must consider what constitutes a justification for anti-discrimination laws.
What Are Anti-Discrimination Laws?
In an article for Notre Dame Law Review, Richard F. Duncan provides a model for thinking through the issue. As Duncan says, in order to answer the question of whether sexual orientation should be protected by anti-discrimination laws we should first consider the purpose of such laws. "It is important to recognize, however, that civil rights laws codifying this principle are nothing more than exceptions to the general rule of free choice," says Duncan. Employers, landlords, business owners, and so on, have historically retained the moral and legal right to freedom of association, which allows them to choose whom they will or will not do business with. In the latter half of the 20th century, certain exemptions to this general principle became codified in the United States to protect categories such as race and gender.
It is important to remember that these anti-discrimination laws are exemptions to the general rule. Except for the protected classes, business owners, et al., are allowed to discriminate (i.e., refuse to do business) with people for a variety of reasons. For instance, a landlord is not required to rent to a pornographer or a Klansman. In general, sexual orientation (however it was made known to a business owner) has been one of thousands of factors that are unprotected by antidiscrimination laws.
People who claim that legislation to protect sexual orientation is merely seeking to provide the same protections that are afforded to other people are incorrect: they already have the same rights everyone else has, i.e., the right to be protected against discrimination on the basis of their race, gender, and other protected categories. It is necessary that we are clear that seeking to make sexual orientation a protected class are seeking a special exemption that is not afforded to millions of other criteria.
A case could possibly be made that sexual orientation deserves this special exemption if it can be shown to be analogous to the category of race. So let's examine that claim.
What Characteristics Warrant Special Protection?
The three most common reasons for considering race as a protected class is because race is immutable, morally neutral, and that discrimination has a significantly detrimental economic and political impact. The only two that really matter, however, are the last two. Whether a characteristic is immutable (i.e., subject to change) is not all that important, and shouldn't really factor into the question of antidiscrimination laws. As Duncan says,
Suppose, for example, that a drug were invented that would enable human beings to change their race. In other words, blacks could take a safe, inexpensive pill and become Caucasian. Would anyone argue seriously that civil rights laws should not cover blacks who declined the drug and thereby chose to remain black?
The reason race is a category worthy of protection is not because it is immutable, but because it is a morally neutral characteristic that has proven to have a significantly detrimental economic and political impact. And based on these criteria, sexual orientation is not analogous to race.
What Is Sexual Orientation?
Critics of orthodox Christianity often claim that the writers of the Bible had no conception of sexual orientation in the way that we use the term today. I suspect they are right. Some Christians (including me) believe that the phrase "sexual orientation" should be abandoned altogether since it is a harmful social construct.
The phrase itself is rather new. It was almost never used before 1920, and only really entered common usage in the 1970s during the early gay rights movement. Since then, the term has expanded and contracted based largely on the political needs of activists. The typical definition of the term—for instance, the one used by the American Psychological Association—is that a sexual orientation "refers to a person's sense of identity based on those attractions, related behaviors, and membership in a community of others who share those attractions."
The three broad categories of sexual orientation are heterosexual, homosexual, and bisexual, though there are other distinct—and often problematic—orientations as well. A prime example is pedophilia.
We can either say that pedophilia is a distinct sexual orientation, or we can say that it is a paraphilia associated with one of the three main orientations. For the past three decades this latter option has largely been rejected by the LGBTQ community. They insist there is no link between homosexuality and pedophilia. As a 2012 Huffington Post article says, "Quite often, pedophiles never develop a sexual orientation toward other adults." However, if it is true that pedophiles don't develop an orientation to other adults, and hence are neither heterosexual nor homosexual, then pedophilia must be a distinct sexual orientation.
This has been the commonsense view, though it too has been rejected by the LGBTQ activists since it makes the protection of sexual orientation as a generic class not only problematic, but morally reprehensible. If they are being honest, what they want is not a protection for all sexual orientations but only for orientations that can be applied to adult homosexuals. What LGBTQ activists want is a special exemption for a special subset of sexual orientations.
The 'Morally Neutral' Criteria
But let's grant, for the sake of argument, that we are warranted in carving out a special exemption for a particular type of sexual orientation (adult homosexuals). Is homosexual orientation and behavior morally neutral?
The obvious Christian answer is "no." There has never been a time in the history of Christianity—or even of Western Civilization—when sexuality has been considered a morally neutral characteristic of humans. Homosexuality, in particular, has historically been viewed by orthodox Christians as immoral behavior.
How then do LGBTQ supporters make the case that homosexuality is morally neutral and morally uncontroversial? By claiming that it is unreasonable to oppose homosexuality. And how do they do that? By claiming it is a morally neutral trait akin to race.
This argument fails, however, because it relies on a form of the logical fallacy called circular reasoning. Circular reasoning is often of the form: "A is true because B is true; B is true because A is true." The LGBTQ argument is rooted in the idea that "Homosexual orientation is akin to race because it is morally neutral; and it is morally neutral because it is akin to race." The argument needs an extra premise that ties homosexuality to race. The most likely candidate would be a detrimental impact of discrimination.
The Economic and Political Impact Criteria
The most obvious reason why the connection between homosexuality and race fails is because it does not currently lead to a detrimental economic and political impact. I won't belabor the point, since it is so obvious that LGBTQ advocates rarely attempt to claim that being gay is politically and economically harmful.
While individual cases obviously vary, as a class homosexuals have more political and economic power than any other minority group in America. The idea that homosexuals suffer the same detrimental impact as African Americans is so ridiculous that no one even bothers to seriously make such a claim.
What the Issue Is Really About
The main difference between antidiscrimination laws based on race and on sexual orientation is that the former were intended to recognize a morally neutral characteristic, while the latter is an effort to reclassify a non-neutral characteristic as morally good.
In previous decades this point was talked about, but not made obvious. As the LGBTQ journalist and activist Randy Shilts once said, the gay political agenda is "essentially a battle for social legitimacy." Similarly, Frank Kameny, an early leader of the homosexual rights movement, said in 1964:
I take the stand that not only is homosexuality . . . not immoral, but that homosexual acts engaged in by consenting adults are moral, in a positive and real sense, and are right, good, and desirable, both for the individual participants and for the society in which they live.
This is the position of most, if not all, members of the LGBTQ community today. It is also widely shared by many Christians, despite that fact that is wholly and unequivocally incompatible with Christian belief. Christians who support making sexual orientation a protected class are not, as some mistakenly believe, supporting a morally neutral position; they are helping to transform and reframe the idea of sexual orientation—specifically homosexuality—as a moral good.
Should We Be Forced to View Homosexuality as 'Morally Good'?
That is the stated goal of antidiscrimination laws based on sexual orientation: such legislation compels people, by force of law, to recognize that sexual activities are morally good and provides a basis for societal censure for disagreeing with that viewpoint.
As Americans, we have a constitutional right to lobby the government to recognize and promote our favorite types of sin. We should not be surprised, then, to find secular LGBTQ activists promoting their views in the public square, even when their arguments are morally problematic, illogical, and offensive to racial minorities.
What we should not tolerate, however, is the efforts of our fellow brothers and sisters in Christ to promote laws that promote destructive behavior as morally good. We cannot love our neighbor by encouraging them to engage in actions that invoke God's wrath (Ps. 5:4-5; Rom. 1:18). As Christians we may be required to tolerate ungodly behavior, but the moment we begin to endorse the same then we too have become suppressers of the truth. We cannot love our neighbor and want to see them excluded from the kingdom of Christ (Eph. 5:5).
We must, therefore, challenge our fellow believers who are promoting hate by claiming that discrimination based on sexual behavior is similar to racial bigotry and Jim Crow-style segregation laws. These types of claims that sexual orientation is analogous to race are unbiblical, racially insensitive, and morally repugnant. We must correct such misperceptions in a spirit of gentleness and truth. But we must also do so forcefully and make it clear that we cannot be followers of Christ and promoters of evil.