The United Kingdom (UK) has recently scored a major victory for gay rights and equality for all. According to "Warning shot for hotels over gay couples," a report by Sarah Womack and Jonathan Petre appearing in www.telegraph.co.uk on July 30, 2007, religionist hotel owners in the UK will no longer be able to turn away gay couples unless they impose a "sleeping together ban" on all guests.
A new law says that businesses offering services to straight couples cannot turn a way patrons on account of their sexual orientation. For example, a wedding photographer who is offended by homosexuality should take up portrait photography instead, a government minister said.
Giles Fraser, a vicar of the Church of England, supported the legislation, saying that discrimination against homosexuals was always wrong. He's absolutely correct. Moral absolutes, including the harm to the social fabric of condoning insidious antigay discrimination, are always wrong and should be prohibited by law.
Laws enforcing antidiscrimination measures are appropriate anywhere that the public acceptance of homosexuals has risen to the point where allowing discrimination is simply unacceptable to the humane conscience. In less morally sensitive countries, compromises may be necessary until the public opinion has been sensitized to the immorality of antigay discrimination.
Opponents of progress will undoubtedly decry the legislation as an instance of discrimination against religion. However, don't be misled. Religion itself is not abridged in any way by the ruling. Religionists of all varieties and the secular alike are held equal under the law, playing the hotel game by the same rule book as everyone else. Conservative Christians and Muslims are welcome to hold their beliefs but they have no guarantee of legal sanction for behavior that is socially repunant and objectively wrong. Nobody has a constitutional guarantee that they can own a public business and operating it in such a way as to flout the law.
In a way, the most significant event in the UK is not the emergence of a new government-sponsored morality. It is the emergence of a conservative religionist ethic that demands the right to trample on the freedom of others in the name of its own unhindered expression.
Conservative religionists are increasingly flaunting their pro-bigotry ethic in the public sphere, pushing the boundaries of democratic society to the limit in order to probe for weaknesses. In the US, religionists are increasingly becoming pro-bigotry activists, for instance by rallying their troops behind antigay legislation and by pressing for the exclusion of gays from hate crimes legislation.
US gays aren't nearly as well poised to enjoy full equality under the law as their fellows in the UK. Rudimentary antidiscrimination legislation is nominally supported by many members of the the Democratic party, but Democratic leaders in Congress have hesitated to bring the legislation to a vote on the grounds that it's too controversial.
The task ahead for US gays is more difficult than simply persuading legislators to support antidiscrimination legislation. The gay rights movement must work to build a national consensus that discrimination in all its forms is socially repugnant, a moral blight on civil society. That means advocates of gay rights who are accustomed to advancing liberal arguments that sidestep questions of public morality will need to change their tune.
Conservative religionists in the US have found an ingenious argument against gay rights legislation by mimicking the worst arguments of the gay rights leaders themselves. Arguing that religionists are an oppressed group and protected class, they have cast the rights battle as a zero-sum game of religionist rights versus gay rights. They seek to avoid a discussion of the morality of discrimination itself in favor of playing the victim and crying for government relief. But when the arguments in favor of gay rights are couched in terms of whether society can afford to allow business owners to discriminate against any class of patron, gay rights is on a much stronger footing.
Gay rights advocates must counter concerns related to religious freedom by highlighting the distinction between thought, private behavior, and public behavior. Freedom of religion grants individuals right to think as they will and act on those beliefs in ways that don't harm others. But freedom of religion hits the wall when it comes to sanctioning socially harmful behavior. Bigotry should not allowed simply because it wear's the sheep's clothing of religious faith.