01/30/2007 03:30 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

Britain's Gay Adoption Debate

Yesterday in Britain, Prime Minister Tony Blair made final a decision
requiring adoption agencies to give equal consideration to gay couples in
placement of children. Catholic groups had sought an exception that would
allow them to "opt out" of this provision of England's new Equality Law, set
to take effect next year.

In the debate over whether Christian groups should get an exemption from the
law, religious commentators are turning a familiar theme on its head:
requiring tolerance from the devout, they argue, amounts to discrimination.

Piers Paul Reed, for instance, a popular English author and a prominent
Catholic, has called it ironic that homosexuals, so often the victims of
discrimination for what they feel in their hearts, would seek to force
Christians to violate the deepest convictions of their souls.

The argument appears disingenuous to many. For all the passion religious
conservatives put into opposing the rights of gays and lesbians in the name
of scripture, surprisingly little is devoted to themes and practices that
the Bible addresses with much greater frequency and clarity, such as the
stricture against divorce, the duty to help the poor or the obligation to be
good stewards of the Earth. Indeed, the selective use of religious doctrine
to enforce discrimination is on full view in the current debate over gay
adoption, best exhibited by the willingness of Catholic agencies to place
children with divorced or even single people (many presumably having sex out
of wedlock) while drawing the line at gays.

But the argument that gays and lesbians should sympathize with the situation
of devout Christians as victims of discrimination signals a remarkable --if
perhaps unwitting-- evolution in religious thought about homosexuality. The
ironic, and quite promising, outcome is that social conservatives are now
expressing parity between the feelings of Christians and the feelings of
gays and lesbians.

What might come of this newfound sympathy? Religious faith and practice
have properly enjoyed special status in Western culture as a protected
sphere. When John Locke and Thomas Jefferson articulated their influential
theories of political liberty during the Enlightenment, freedom of
conscience was fundamental‹the only way to give any real meaning to the
period's new understanding of the relationship between the state and the
individual. In a free society, any effort to dictate the shape of the human
heart is considered not only inhumane, but impossible --as meaningless as
squaring a circle. What people believe or feel inside is regarded as a
matter of individual conscience, and cannot be mandated by a tribe, a King
or a state.

In this light, it is not hard to grasp the parallels between sexual
orientation and religious faith that embattled Christians are now
expressing. Religious individuals often speak of feeling a surge of emotion
from deep within them, of hearing a calling from something outside of
themselves, and of struggling to follow the dictates of their conscience in
secular surroundings. Likewise, gays and lesbians frequently describe the
undeniable force of their emotional attractions, the need to respect a
commanding feeling that seems to come from something greater than individual
whim, and the challenge of honoring their convictions despite social stigma.

The question, of course, is how civil society should proceed, given the
often conflicting views of different groups. Locke and Jefferson answered
this question by inventing liberalism, the political philosophy that still
governs the world's most stable and successful nations. To tie people
together in a world of myriad faiths, cultures and beliefs, they taught, the
freedoms of the heart must be respected; but they must never be used to
condone harmful behavior. Just because someone believes in baby-killing
doesn't mean he should be allowed to kill babies. And this is precisely why
the demand of the Catholic Church to be exempt from the Equality Act is
dangerous: a civil society simply can't stand if each group is allowed to
decide which laws to follow, even if based on longstanding cultural or
religious traditions. This is a recipe at best for favoritism, at worst for

Instead, laws must be based on a civic debate about their merits, about
whether a given policy is good for society or bad. And while many who
oppose gay rights insist that allowing gays to be parents is bad for
children, the reality is that not a single reputable study shows any harm
whatsoever to children living in same-sex households. One of the most
respected studies that assessed the effects of gay parentage found that it
"has no measurable effect on the quality of parent-child relationships or on
children's mental health or social adjustment." This was also the
conclusion reached by the American Psychological Association after an
extensive review of the literature on gay families. Ditto the American
Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry and the American Academy of

If Catholic opponents of gay parenting truly seek the understanding of the
rest of society, it won't come from charging that it's discrimination for
them to be required not to discriminate. As one member of British Parliament
has put it, "if you bring in a law which says all people will be treated
equally, then all people will be treated equally." Anything less is a
threat to the common values that tie all of us, not just some of us,