Michael Kessler of Georgetown University, writing in the “On Faith” column at the Washington Post, throws down a challenge to churches and other religious organizations that are seeking an exemption from the wave of same-sex marriage laws (and judicial decrees) that are coming down. He claims that no one has satisfactorily answered his concern, and so it seems only right that yours truly give it a shot. Kessler writes:

These religious exemptions are probably a good compromise position for the inevitable conflict between the basic moral goods of free exercise of religion and equal protection/access of the law. Persons like Miss [USA pageant contestant from California, Carrie] Prejean who do not want to provide flowers or psalms at a gay wedding would be able to privately bow out. Gay couples could still seek the protections of legal union. Whether that should be called “marriage” I am not advocating for or against.

However, the arguments for religious exemptions do seem to encounter one hurdle that I have yet to see surmounted. There are significant parallels between the movement for denying same sex unions under law, and laws that promoted and perpetuated racial discrimination. Just like some churches of today who preach about God’s will and the abomination of gay marriage, so too did some churches of yesterday discern God’s intention for separating the races and keeping the “inferior races” at bay.

That there are churches that supported racial separation, and opposed interracial marriage, is true enough, and entirely to their shame. That there are “significant parallels” between the two is another story.

The history of racism in America, and the support churches gave to it, is the story of a fall from grace. The racial categories that American Christians used to justify Jim Crow have little basis in reality, and were frequently based on pseudo-scientific theories (much like the eugenics that people like Margaret Sanger supported). Historically, the tradition of the church didn’t support the kind of racial separation, much less discrimination, that was advocated by many American Christians, and in fact the universal practice of the early church rejected efforts to separate people according to non-religious criteria. Peter’s vision (Acts 10) continued the process begun by Jesus of knocking down barriers between racial and ethnic groups, and that process was speeded by Paul in passages such as Ephesians 2:19-23 (where he proclaims the fall of the “middle wall of separation” between Jews and Gentiles) and Galatians 3:28 (where he declares that in Christ there is neither Jew nor Greek). Churches that supported racial discrimination did so in violation, not continuation, of their spiritual heritage, whereas the opposition to same sex marriage is predicated on opposition to homosexual behavior, opposition to which is unanimous in Scripture whenever the subject comes up, and which continued to be the universal position of the entire Christian church (Catholic, Orthodox, and all Protestant denominations) until the early 1970s.

And it is an obvious problem if you watch the National Organization for Marriage‘s new ad campaign. The much-parodied spot is called “A Gathering Storm.” It has an earnest if gloomy tone, and its aesthetic, as Stephen Colbert described it, is “like watching the 700 Club and the Weather Channel at the same time.”

According to the ad, a “rainbow coalition . . . coming together in love” is concerned that they are being required to accept gay marriage in their workplace, schools, and their daily public life. They do not want to be forced to accept something against their religious convictions. “Keep your gay unions away from me and my kids” is the gist of the ad. My guess is NOM would rather not have gay marriage at all, rather than accept it with the provision for religious exemptions.

Watch the advertisement and substitute the words “racial integration” in for “gay marriage” or “same sex marriage.” This exposes the thorny issue for religious exemptions.

The ad is, shall we say, a bit over the top in its staging, but the concern it voices is real and undisputed by Kessler. He is quite right that NOM would rather not have gay marriage at all, but it is also the case that if it becomes the law of the land, NOM (and, if I were guessing, a majority of Christians, orthodox Jews, and Muslims) would want there to be protections to prevent religious groups from having to go against conscience.

But here’s the real point: simply substituting the words “racial integration” for “gay marriage” makes no more sense in drawing a parallel than substituting “working women” or “equal pay for equal work” or “praying to Barack Obama.” You can substitute any words on any issue, and it tells you nothing about the stance of the people behind the ad or those who agree with it.

There are certainly some differences between judging people based on race, and judging people based on their sexual identity. However, in this instance, I am not convinced that those who call for religious exemptions from anti-discrimination laws have differentiated themselves from the parallels to racial discrimination. I would like to see advocates make that distinction more clear.

This is intellectual dishonesty at its most insidious. Kessler is essentially advancing the “when did you stop beating your wife?” argument, demanding that anti-gay marriage groups address a parallel that they would no doubt unanimously reject. Kessler has no evidence that any of the individuals or groups involved in opposing gay marriage ever supported Jim Crow, racial segregation, or interracial marriage laws (I know I didn’t–for pity’s sake, I’m in an interracial marriage); he simply asserts the parallel, and says that those who are opposed to the one have to answer for those who opposed the other. And as long as opponents of gay marriage have to keep saying, “I don’t think there’s any connection to interracial marriage, and I don’t oppose that,” people will be wondering why they keep bringing it up–maybe they really do oppose interracial marriage and are trying to throw us off the track?

Miss Prejean has every right to her convictions–and I applaud her for stating them. Going further and denying other people access to enjoyment of their fundamental privileges and immunities of citizenship because of her convictions is inappropriate.

Actually, it isn’t, and it happens all the time. For example, neither the First nor the Fourteenth Amendment mentions any restrictions whatsoever on freedom of speech. Yet that freedom is restricted in a number of ways that most of us would agree make sense in an ordered society (you can’t yell “fire!” in a crowded theater just for the fun of it, you can’t make, sell or possess child pornography, you can’t lie under oath in a court proceeding, etc.). For another, polygamy is prohibited, despite the religious sanction it receives in Islam and some forms of Mormonism. For yet another, people who are 17 years old on Election Day are denied the right to vote, even if they turn 18 the next day. The point is that there are restrictions on many of the “fundamental privileges and immunities of citizenship,” and the restriction of marriage to one man and one woman is one of them. You can certainly make a case for marriage to be extended to gays, but to suggest that opposition to doing so is nothing more than prejudice in action without constitutional basis ignores moral, philosophical, sociological, and historical arguments that may or may not be persuasive, but which certainly cannot be dismissed with proper refutation.

At the same time, those like Miss Prejean who do not want to participate in what they find repulsive because of their religious convictions should be able to enjoy the protection of that religious liberty.

Kessler had previously made reference to the KKK [sic–I think he was referring to Nazis] marching in heavily Jewish Skokie, Illinois as an example of protecting the rights even of people he finds reprehensible. It would seem that the majority of Americans who still oppose gay marriage fall in the same category.