In the wake of the horrific act of contemptible violence committed last week at the Family Research Council, conservative Christian leaders at the Council and others volleyed with left-leaning organizations, notably the Southern Poverty Law Center, about the SPLC's designation of the Family Research Council as a hate group. The Washington Post's Jennifer Rubin and Dana Milbank opined on the hate group label, dancing very close to condemning it.
The back-and-forth between the groups is petty given the circumstances. Injustice inflicted upon anyone is an injustice sustained by all. LGBT rights groups did the right thing and stood alongside the FRC in solidarity against violence. It should have been left at that.
However, greater reflection on the ensuing debate raises an important, fundamental question that we as a society must address: When does the free exercise of religion become hate, and what do we do about it when it does?
The problem with the Family Research Council is that the organization's positions aren't simply informed by Biblical principles. Nor does the FRC's main focus seek to ensure that with the advancement of LGBT rights, the rights of religious objectors are similarly protected. If the group's public policy work were limited to Biblically driven public policy advocacy and self-liberty interests, there would be little controversy about their place in our plural society's marketplace of ideas.
Rather, the Family Research Council and some of its allies present decades-old, discredited, and recanted junk science for public, legislative, and judicial consumption. Their publications, for example, cite to the Journal of Human Sexuality as if it were a legitimate, peer-reviewed scientific journal. It is anything but. That journal is a faux-academic arm of the group NARTH, the major advocate for the nearly universally rebuked "reparative therapy."
The dire consequence of this unholy marriage of faux science and religion is twofold. First, these groups are increasingly taking up state marriage-equality lawsuits where the state refuses to defend discriminatory marriage laws. As a consequence, this junk science creeps it way into legal decisions, like the recent defeat for marriage equality in a Hawaii federal court.
Secondly, the demeaning nature of these groups' work reinforces anti-LGBT animus in our society. The FRC's agenda is damaging to LGBT people's welfare and dignity. They take their human and constitutional right to express sincerely held religious perspectives that condemn homosexuality and same-sex marriage and infuse those positions with inflammatory descriptions of gay people as dirty, promiscuous, and self-destructive, rather than talking about homosexuality in terms of Biblical doctrine, morality, and "tradition."
Their approach stands in stark contrast to a recent letter from the Catholic Bishop of Spokane, Wash., who urged his flock to defeat same-sex marriage there in November but also emphasized that the Church "has no tolerance for the misuse of this moment to incite hostility towards homosexual persons or promote an agenda that is hateful and disrespectful of their human dignity."
At the end of the day, though, it is irrelevant whether the FRC and others like it are actually a "hate group." Such labels are unproductive. Those labels give us who oppose their policy positions the ability to write them off as crazy folks, people who are not to be taken seriously or engaged in spirited, civil dialogue. That is a mistake.
The answer to FRC and groups like it is to shed light on their wrongheaded positions of public policy. Light is the greatest cure for myopia. We must civilly go toe to toe with them in courts, legislatures, and in the public eye to dismantle their falsifiable mistruths without demeaning or attacking religion. We must continue speaking truth to injustice. And when the fodder of hyperbolic rhetoric starts again -- and it will -- we should rise above the unproductive volleying, turn the other cheek, and keep the movement to preserve human dignity for all people, even those who we disagree with, going forward.