Everywhere from college graduation speaker choices to the talking heads on CNN to the blog-o-sphere, people are talking about freedom of speech and the need in the US to nurture healthy debates among people who hold different opinions.
This past week (May 4-10, 2014) two high profile situations created chaos on CNN: Donald Sterling's "racist" rant that was caught on tape and released by TMZ (of course!) and HGTV's decision to stop production on a home reality show--Flip it Forward-- featuring the Benhem brothers who made anti-gay remarks, on camera, at a prayer rally outside the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte, NC in 2012.
CNN invited guests to debate HGTV's decision.
What came up over and over again, ad nauseam in my opinion, were guests who argued fervently that the HGTV decision signals yet another instance of an intolerance of differences of opinion and specifically conservative Christian views.
After watching hours of these debates on CNN it became clear to me that lost in all of these debates is the distinction between a difference of opinion and the right (or not) to discriminate.
We can have a difference of opinion on the causes of climate change or the factors that produced the deep recession of the recent few years. We can and should debate these controversial issues and explore their causes so that we can solve them.
Arguing that marriage should be restricted to "one man and one woman"--which both the Benhems and Roberston stated explicitly---is not a difference of opinion, it is nothing short of discrimination, a denial of people of their human and civil rights based on their LGBTQ identity.
It is, of course, true that members of the LGBTQ community still do not have full and equal legal rights in the United States, something many of us are fighting for. But this fact alone does not and should not be used to deny them human and civil rights or to label discrimination and discriminatory behavior against members of the LGBTQ community as simply a matter of a "difference of opinion."
Certainly the constitution guarantees the right to free speech--a "difference of opinion"--yet at its very core the constitution prohibits discrimination even when guaranteeing the civil rights of one individual or group violates another person or group's opinion.
For example, during the Civil Rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s, many Whites staunchly believed that integration would shred the moral fabric of our society and that southern states should not be forced by the US government to integrate schools from Little Rock Central High School to Ole Miss. Were their resistance labeled as simply a "difference of opinion" that should be worthy of public debate and not the discrimination that it really was, I can pretty much guarantee that schools would never have integrated. I am thankful that Presidents Eisenhower and Kennedy had the moral fortitude to engage any force necessary to ensure that discrimination was not allowed to continue rather than buying into the belief that those who believed in segregation were simply voicing a "difference of opinion."
The HGTV case (and that of A&E and Duck Dynasty's Phil Robertson as well) is extremely powerful because it also turns on the issue of religious freedom and the role that religion plays in informing "differences of opinion." Specifically, some commentators reacted to the HGTV decision by arguing that the "left" has demonized the espousing of "Christian Values" like those expressed by the Benhem's and Phil Robertson. Defenders of this perspective argue that a religious belief essentially provides a justification for discrimination aimed at the LGBTQ community.
(I was pleased to see Michaela Pereira, CNN anchor, note that hate is not a Christian value and that many Christians support human and civil rights for everyone, including the LGBTQ community.)
Interesting, in legal cases in which a "difference of opinion" based on religious beliefs is in contradiction to civil rights, the US Supreme Court has been clear-- and likely will rule similarly in pending cases--that religious beliefs are not exemptions from compliance with the law. For example, a Catholic pharmacist employed by Walgreens or WalMart, whose religious beliefs prohibit the use of oral contraception ("the Pill") cannot legally refuse to sell "the Pill" to a woman presenting a valid prescription for its purchase. Or as we saw in Arizona this past winter, a bill that would allow restaurant and shop owners to deny service to LGBTQ customers based on their religious beliefs was not passed.
HGTV made the right moral, ethical and legal decision in refusing to pursue the initial contract with the Benhem brothers; HGTV's obligation to protect the human and civil (if not yet legal) rights of members of the LGBTQ community trumps the Benhem brothers' religious beliefs that they claim prohibit extending legal rights to members of the LGTBQ community--the right to a legal marriage.
When will those with "public" voices---politicians, public figures, TV anchors--label the kinds of views expressed by the Benhem brothers and Phil Roberston for what they really are? Denying any group, including the LGBTQ community, their human and civil rights is not a "difference of opinion" it is discrimination. Period.
Oh, and by the way, I have but one piece of advice for the Benhem brothers, who appeared on CNN stating that they don't hate "homosexuals" they just have a "problem" with homosexuality because it involves sex outside of marriage. Campaign to legalize marriage for all and your "problem" will immediately be solved!