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Sister Mary Margaret Has Two Mommies

February 5th, 2007 · No Comments

The Cornerites are having a back and forth (and back again) on British conservative David Cameron’s stance against exempting Catholic adoption agencies from a ban on discriminating against gay parents.

I’m on board with Andrew Stuttaford this far: This isn’t, or at any rate shouldn’t be, a “religious freedom” question. On my view, the right interpretation of a special deference for religion is just that a facially neutral law shouldn’t be a pretext for stamping out a religious practice or otherwise targeting members of a specific religious group—so, for instance, a law barring tiny hats would be suspect even if it scrupulously omitted any mention of yarmulkes or Jews. But there’s no very good reason it ought to mean you ought to get a pass on some neutral, independently justifiable law on account of a religious belief, as opposed to a personal conviction or some secular, philosophical point of disagreement.

That said, it seems to me that what’s really at issue is not so much the rights of the Catholic agencies so much as the rights of parents, of whatever faith, to determine what becomes of their children, within certain reasonable limits. If a parent or parents decide that Aunt Hortense or their friends the Joneses should become the legal guardians of little Timmy, then provided the Joneses are not serial child abusers or what have you, we typically regard that as their prerogative. And if they want to designate guardians with less specificity—Timmy should only go to someone of our faith, or of our race, or a hetero couple, or a gay couple, or a polyamorist cluster, or Latin speakers—that too seems like an area where you defer to their judgment. The fact that they might exercise this right to set general criteria by proxy, through selecting an agency, rather than by auditioning prospective parents themselves, ought not to make a difference.

On the other side, though, the government does seem to me to be under a dual obligation, first, not to fund agencies that practice such discrimination wholesale (it’s a somewhat trickier question what to say about agencies that simply follow parental directives) and second, not to place children who’ve come into government custody through the death, incapacitation, or proven unfitness of the biological parents with such agencies. That’s partly on civil rights grounds, insofar as states shouldn’t distinguish between gay and straight citizens without some very compelling reason, but primarily because governments have an obligation to the children who become its wards to find them the best available home, an obligation that’s obviously not served by excluding a priori a whole group of potentially fit parents—especially when you consider that gay couples appear more willing, for whatever reason, to take on hard-to-place “special needs” children. That some people feel very strongly that the “best home” will be a straight home doesn’t change the fact that there is no actual evidence for this.

Still, recurring to the religious freedom question, it’s worth noting that Mark Steyn seems to have, if this is possible, a few more flecks of foam than usual at the corners of his mouth:

For a start, simply as a matter of reality, whether or not we’re all cool with gays and don’t go to church except for elderly relatives’ funerals, the life that most people lead in “secular” western societies owes more to the Judeo-Christian inheritance than to Islam or Buddhism or anything else. Therefore, to argue that two thousand years of conventional Catholic belief in this area is equivalent to Muslim views on wife-beating or polygamy is not a rebuke to multiculturalism but merely a manifestation of it – an equality of exclusion similar to that adopted by the French state when, in order to ban the veil from French schools, they also banned crucifixes.

Alas, non-sequiturs are not made coherent by inserting a “therefore” between two logically unconnected propositions. Obviously, the culture of Western societies is more shaped by Christianity than Islam; what of it? Why does this constitute a reason for crafting loopholes only for those groups—arguably those with less need for it, since their practices and beliefs are more likely to have an anterior influence on the legislative process? And how does this cash out into an actually applicable principle? There are a raft of different religious practices followed by various Jewish and Christian sects. Which ones are due an exemption from otherwise generally applicable laws? And as a matter of practical politics, why shouldn’t Muslims who see this sort of differential treatment feel either aggrieved by the second class status their faith is accorder or, conversely, entitled to demand similar exemptions? Steyn may find it obvious which such demands ought to be respected, but that doesn’t mean the political process will reflect his judgment.

More generally, it seems like a good idea to distinguish Steyn’s bugbear, “multiculturalism,” from basic liberal pluralism. On Steyn’s view, the failure to make special accommodation for one historically dominant religious tradition smacks of “multiculturalism.” By which logic any sort of state neutrality, any reluctance to impose the tenets of one faction on the entire population, might be similarly so branded. This is an abuse of language. The sense in which “multiculturalism” deserves to be used as a pejorative is that which entails a kind of balkanization of public norms, with different rules and standards applying to different groups—the sense in which both the citizenry and the individual citizen dissolve into a crazy-quilt of intermediate identities. Steyn’s backward notion seems to be that he’s not practicing “multiculturalism” if he’s only prepared to absolve particular favored groups of the obligation to observe neutral norms. That’s just multiculturalism leavened with parochialism.

Tags: Sexual Politics