As I write, it is uncertain whether the New York State Senate will pass a bill legalizing gay marriage over the fierce opposition of the powerful archbishop of New York, Timothy J. Dolan. Other religious denominations, including both African-American and white Protestant fundamentalist churches, have fought the bill, but in the state of New York, the Catholic Church is the biggest and roughest player. This is also a personal dispute among Catholics, because New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, who strongly supports gay marriage, is a Catholic accused by the Vatican of “public concubinage” for living with a woman to whom he is not married.
Whatever the outcome, the political battle over gay marriage in New York casts a new light on the determination of the religious right to mobilize general anti-government sentiment on behalf of religious causes. Until now, the Catholic Church (like fundamentalist African-American churches) has performed a delicate balancing act in this area, because while the Church wants the state to privilege conservative religious doctorine on matter such as abortion, assisted dying and gay marriage, it does not share the general opposition to big government and social spending promulgated by those white evangelical Protestants who are also economic conservatives.
Not since the days when Francis Cardinal Spellman blasted Eleanor Roosevelt for promoting “discrimination unworthy of an American mother”—she had declared her opposition in 1949 to federal tax subsidies for parochial school programs—has the Catholic hierarchy in New York taken such an aggressive stance on a political issue. (See my Freethinkers: A History of American Secularism, pp. 101-103.)
On his widely read blog, “The Gospel in the Digital Age,” Dolan compared legalization of gay marriage to the intrusion on personal and family life by the governments of China and North Korea.
“In those countries,” Dolan declared, “government presumes daily to `redefine’ rights, relationships, values, and natural law. There, communiqués from the government can dictate the size of families, who lives and who dies, and what the very definition of `family’ and `marriage’ means. Please, not here!”
This illogical equation between extending a right heretofore enjoyed by one group of people (hetereosexual couples) to another group (homosexual couples) and taking away everyone’s rights is very much in line with the accusation of “secular socialism” leveled at liberals in general and President Obama in particular. In fact, the only “right” being taken away is the right of conservative churches—often the most conservative factions within churches—to inject their specific religious beliefs into laws regulating families and sexual conduct.
Indeed, an extension of the right of legal marriage to gays, far from being an example of state intrusion on private life, actually removes the government one step further from making restrictive judgements about personal behavior. China’s “one child” policy does attempt to dictate private hehavior. The legalization of gay marriage, by contrast, says, “you may”—which hardly resembles a government injunction that says either “you must” or “you must not.”
The hypocrisy of the Catholic Church in making this false analogy is cast into high relief by its long and ultimately unsuccessful battle, from the 1920s to the 1960s, to obstruct and criminalize the dissemination of birth control information and devices. If telling couples to have only only one child amounts to a government dictatorship, what can be said of the church’s longtime use of the state to enforce its insistence that couples should have as many children as God and “natural law” send them?
In another column, Dolan underlines that we celebrate “Father’s Day” (to distinguish the holiday, presumably, from Two Fathers’ or Two Mothers’ Day). “The sacred word ‘father’ implies ‘mother,’” he writes. “The terms ‘father and mother’ presume `husband and wife’ and imply `children.’ “Well, that settles it. And if you don’t agree, see how you like it when you’re living under family laws made in Beijing and Pyongyang I really don’t know why Dolan would object, since these countries, like their Soviet Communist forebears, have little tolerance for gays.
The gay marriage bill is currently being held up in Albany by negotiations to provide more exemptions for individuals who don’t approve of gay marriage on religious grounds. The bill already exempts churches and representatives of churches from performing marriage ceremonies that violate their religious beliefs (as would be required under the First Amendment in any case). The word is that that the legislators in Albany, in spite of their eagerness to leave for the summer, are wrangling over whether a devout Protestant fundamentalist or Catholic caterer would be required to arrange a wedding reception for a gay couple. We have heard this all before, of course, in the debate over the public accomodations sections of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Then the political right was was worried not about homophobic caterers but about good old boy barbers who might be forced to cut the hair of black Americans.
Given the boost to the catering business in the five states that already allow gay marriage, it’s hard to imagine many New York hotels that would be eager to turn away a lucrative gay wedding party—or many gay couples who would want to celebrate their union in an unfriendly establishment.
One wonders whether Dolan would be satisfied with “restricted “ hotels that did not admit gays at all, as many fancy New York hotels used to bar Jews (or people they thought to be Jews). Oh, wait. Restricted facilities that bar customers on the basis of race or religion are already illegal. If a gay Jew and a gay Catholic book a room for a wedding reception, how could you prove that someone was being barred for sexual preference instead of religion? Should there be exemptions for those whose faith tells them to bar gay atheists from marrying? Dolan must be right after all. Government-sanctioned gay marriage is indeed a conspiracy to take away his religious freedom—that is, if the archbishop also happens to be a caterer.
One thing is certain: the New York attempt to link the legalization of gay marriage to a general anti-government stance—illogical as it is and problematic as it is for religions that generally favor government social spending—is likely to be replicated elsewhere in the nation.