In America, rights take precedent over beliefs

November 04, 2012|By TIM ROWLAND |

Imagine sitting in the privacy of your own home one evening when two young women come calling. You open the door and they start to happily explain that you are not their equal, and that you do not deserve the same rights under the law that they enjoy. And they ask you to sign a petition endorsing their beliefs.

Your partner then joins you at the door, and it is only then that the lightbulb goes off over their heads, and an awkward silence ensues. It’s so much harder to put people down when you’re standing eye-to-eye.

This scene played out at least twice that I am aware of in Washington County (and probably much, much more) as gay-marriage opponents fanned out across the state collecting signatures to force a vote on Maryland’s marriage-equity law.

If these women were deep thinkers, maybe a seed was planted. Maybe they will have noticed that the home of a gay couple is just like that of any other, from the food on the stove to the pictures on the fridge to the care the couple shows for each other.

Organizers of the gay-marriage opposition in Maryland are savvy enough to understand that this is probably their last real chance to do harm to gay people, who do not intimidate most people under 30.

In 20 years, very few babies being born into the world today will be able to conceive of the idea of wasting warm, spring afternoons or sunny summer weekends on a mission to thwart the rights of gay Americans.

But for a lot of people today, that’s more of a change in worldview than they will ever be able to adapt to. Those of us who are of a certain age were taught to “hate gays” well before we had any idea of what a gay actually was.

Others have been told by their church to reject lifestyles that are unlike their own.

Even though every page of the New Testament virtually screams at us to do the right thing, we feel compelled for some reason to hunt down a dusty old fossil who insists that homosexuality is an abomination — along with eating bacon, for that matter.

We focus on this outdated edict, while ignoring Jesus’ appeals to love our neighbors, treat others as our equals and respect the rights of all mankind, be they like us or not.

Respecting the beliefs of others isn’t just biblical, of course, nor does it apply only to minority positions. The beliefs of those who are frightened by same-sex marriage are every bit as deserving of respect as those of the people whoaren’t.

But the key word here is “beliefs.” Our beliefs in America are plentiful and varied and we are a stronger nation because of this diversity of thought.

But a belief is not a right. And under our system of government, a belief, no matter how widely held, cannot supersede a right. We might believe that a speech delivered by our adversary is lunacy. But our belief does not deny our adversary the right to speak.

“The great danger in republics,” said no less an authority than the author of our own Constitution, James Madison, “is that the majority will not respect the rights of the minority.”

We’ve allayed Madison’s fears fairly well through the last 200-odd years, although often in our good sweet time. It is heartening to note that the politicians who have argued for individual rights are today known as heroes, while the politicians who would deny rights — to women, blacks, the Irish, you name it — have been largely forgotten.

The politicians fade, but the arguments remain, warmed over relics of past fears, long since dead and buried: Women’s rights are bad for business because they will be a distraction in the workplace; blacks’ rights are a threat to our churches, because before long they will be forced to perform interracial marriages. Tomorrow, seemingly plausible arguments against gay rights will seem just as silly.

But this is not a debate about legalise, definitions or technicalities. This is an debate about human beings, and caring for our fellow Americans, and what was summed up in Jefferson’s document as the pursuit of happiness, in which we should all be free to engage.

Put in real terms, I love my gay friends dearly, and they have done more for me than I can ever repay. And so I want to extend to them the wish that come Tuesday they will have every opportunity, every right, every advantage that I enjoy.

They have all been through a lot more than I, tribulations that I will never know. But I would also tell them to take heart, for if history is a guide, those who disparage minorities today will be standing with them tomorrow — and, of course, asking for their vote.

Tim Rowland is a Herald-Mail columnist. His email address is

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