Religious Liberty? Bigotry? Something Else?

antigay[Note: The opinions expressed here are the author’s own and are not necessarily shared by individuals, companies or municipalities with which he might be affiliated]

big·ot noun \ˈbi-gət\

: a person who strongly and unfairly dislikes other people, ideas, etc. : a bigoted person; especially : a person who hates or refuses to accept the members of a particular group

The above is Merriam Webster’s definition of the word “bigot”. It probably agrees with most people’s understanding of the term. The “unfairly” part of the definition is, in my estimation, what transforms “discrimination” into “bigotry”. So it can be said that it is reasonable to discriminate against bigots. Indeed we should discriminate against persons and modes of thought that “unfairly” make a victim of others.

Which, of course, brings us to Duck Dynasty. Well…not really…but the whole kerfuffle of reality series’ patriarch Phil Robertson certainly generated its share of “bigotry” vs. “religious liberty” debates. For those of you living “off the grid” last December-January, this reality show star, during an interview with GQ magazine, conflated homosexuality with beastiality and general immorality. After the A&E network briefly suspended the top-rated series, other nuggets of Robertson’s “wisdom” came to light with assertions like blacks were perfectly fine with segregation and Jim Crow lawsand the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor because they didn’t believe in Jesus. We also get a fuller understanding of his position on homosexuality with “They’re full of murder, envy, strife, hatred. They are insolent, arrogant, God-haters. They are heartless, they are faithless, they are senseless, they are ruthless. They invent ways of doing evil.” [watch that sermon here] You may have to read between the lines but, if you didn’t catch the gist of his statement,  he’s reeeeealy not a fan of the gay crowd! He tried to tamp down the ensuing uproar claiming that these are merely his Christian beliefs and saying to a bible study group “I love all men and women. I am a lover of humanity, not a hater,”. I don’t think I’m alone in finding it difficult to fully reconcile ‘loving all men and women’ with ‘they’re full of murder’.

There was no shortage of people rushing to show support for Mr. Robertson under the rubric of ‘religious freedom’. A quick perusal of names on Google turned up Bobby Jindal, Sarah Palin, Glenn Beck, Sean Hannity, Ann Coulter, Ted Cruz, Mike Huckabee and more. That’s not to say that I (and others) don’t support Mr. Robertson…but only on the premise of freedom of speech and freedom of thought. While I find his statements repellent; I do support his right to think and speak those thoughts.

But what distinguishes ‘fair’ from ‘unfair’ discrimination? What should our response be to ‘unfair discrimination’ (a.k.a. bigotry)? Let’s take a look at the very accessible example of racial bigotry.

Racism is, in very large measure,  a symptom of the human animal’s innate zenophobia that has us fear those-that-are-not-like-us. Zenophobia afforded great survival advantages over hundreds of millions of years of evolution, but that most-ancient of instincts now saddles us with a near-unsuppressable tendency to self-segregate and create societal divisions. As a society we have, in important ways, recognized that it is a toxic impulse to place disadvantage upon a class of people because of genetic variations in the expression of pigmentation…what we call ‘race’. Indeed; scientists have recognized that race, from a biological perspective, doesn’t even exist. We might just as meaningfully classify blondes and redheads as different races.

Our response should be to 1) point out the facts with regard to race, evolutionary xenophobia and biology and 2) create an environment where racial bigots are embarrassed or uncomfortable for speaking those racist thoughts aloud. If racists refrain from voicing their views, it makes it more difficult to propagate their corrosive meme. In ways subtle and overt, you can make the racial bigot suspect that you don’t care for their thinking. A pregnant pause in the conversation after someone utters a racist remark is more powerful than you might know. It is also fair and appropriate to call them out and challenge their views directly by its proper name: “bigotry”. Even if a bigot doesn’t know they are a bigot, they don’t want to be thought of as a bigot.

Let us now begin the analysis of discrimination against homosexuals. First, we should start with the premise that “all men are created equal” and that no person should be be discriminated against unless it is shown that they are a harm to others. Next we must look at the arguments against the gay community and assess whether they are well founded and valid. If those arguments fail, then that discrimination would be unfair and would…nay, should… be elevated to the status of bigotry. To that end; I have listed most of the standard arguments here:

Argument: Homosexuality is unnatural.

This argument is best refuted by reviewing the evidence of same-sex interactions elsewhere in the animal kingdom. The documentation is broad and even extends beyond mammalian species. Most compelling to me is the documentation from our very nearest primate cousins the bonobos and chimpanzees. I won’t go into detail here so as to maintain the ‘G’ rating of this post, but these are not vague, subjective interactions. It’s pretty explicit. Given that our non-human relatives exhibit homosexual behavior, we should be surprised if we didn’t see that same characteristic exhibited in our species. Being that homosexuality is found elsewhere in nature, we can reasonably say that, while atypical, it is natural and not too dissimilar from left-handedness. (…and left-handedness saw/sees its share of persecution)

Argument: Homosexuality is a choice.

This is clearly refuted by the data. Indeed; this argument is only made by those that are not familiar with the overwhelming evidence on the matter. One of my favorite [albeit sad and unsettling] examples is an analysis by William Riener at the University of Oklahoma. A good summary of this study can be found at Discover Magazine with this excerpt:

“William Reiner, a psychiatrist at the University of Oklahoma Health Sciences Center, explored the question of environmental influences on sexuality with a group that had been surgically shifted from boys to girls. These boys had been born with certain genital deformities; because it is easier to fashion a vagina than a penis, the boys were surgically made into girls at birth. In many cases they were raised as girls, kept in the dark about the surgery, and thought themselves female long into adulthood. Invariably, Reiner found that the faux females ended up being attracted to women. If societal nudging was what made men gay, at least one of these boys should have grown up to be attracted to men. There is no documented case of that happening.” [emphasis mine]

(I recall a similar analysis of similarly gender-shifted boys due to tragic circumcision procedures that yielded the same results.)

Does this say that we know precisely what determines gender preference? No. Does this negate the argument that same-sex attraction is due to environmental pressure or personal choice? Most definitely yes.

Argument: Gay parents raise unhappy kids

If, rightly, we dismiss the claims made by religious conservative organizations in favor of unbiased sources, the evidence says otherwise. If those children do face difficulties, it appears to be from external discrimination against their family structure and not intrinsic to that family structure.

Argument: Gay kids are much more likely to commit suicide.

Sadly; this argument is based in fact. Where it fails is that those offering the argument don’t understand (or don’t wish to contemplate) that correlation does not equal causation. Indeed; if you (as a gay teen) are being told by society…and even your parents…that you are evil and a pox on society, you will likely be wracked with self-loathing and depression. Gay kids don’t kill themselves because they are gay. Gay kids kill themselves because they are told that they are broken.

Argument: Homosexuality is bad for society.

The key point here is how one defines “bad”. I will toss out a loose definition of “harm to another group or individual” as being a societal “bad”. When two consenting adults go behind a door, what they do [to borrow from Thomas Jefferson] “neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg.” Beyond that simple example, it is helpful to look beyond our borders and compare societies that have recognized same-sex relationships with those that legislate against them and look for dysfunction among them.

Countries that recognize same-sex relationships:

Argentina, Denmark, The Netherlands, South Africa, Belgium, England / Wales, New Zealand, Spain, Brazil, France, Norway, Sweden, Canada, Iceland, Portugal, Uruguay (source Pew)

Countries that legislate against homosexuality and same-sex relationships:

Afghanistan, Algeria, Angola, Bangladesh, Benin, Bhutan, Botswana, Brunei, Burundi, Cameroon, Comoros, Egypt, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Gambia, Ghana, Guinea, India, Iran, Kenya, Kuwait, Lebanon, Lesotho, Liberia, Libya, Malawi, Malaysia, Maldives, Mauritania, Mauritius, Morocco, Mozambique, Myanmar, Namibia, Nigeria, Oman, Pakistan, Palestine/GazaStrip, Qatar, Russia, Sao Tome, Saudi Arabia, Senegal, Seychelles, Sierra Leone, Singapore, Somalia, South Sudan, Sri Lanka, Sudan, Swaziland, Syria, Tanzania, Togo, Tunisia, Turkmenistan, Uganda, United Arab Emirates, Uzbekistan, Yemen, Zambia, Zimbabwe (source + recent news from Russia)

Of those two groups; where would you…on the whole…want to book your vacation? Clearly, a traveller is far more likely to bring back pleasant memories (and come back alive) from the nations that are accepting of homosexuality. Having acknowledged that; we, again, have to recognize the distinction between correlation and causation. Is the former group better because they are accepting of homosexuality? Is the latter group the collective armpit of our globe because of their state stance against homosexuality? We can’t make either of those assertions. What the math (math being the only reliable arbiter of truth) does say, though, is that…at a minimum… there seems no indication that state recognition of gay rights leads to (or is symptomatic of) a societal decline.

Now if your definition of “bad” means “lower adherence to religious principles” or “lack of belief in a god”, the math doesn’t support that either. A well-conducted Creighton University study showed those “prosperous democracies” with the least religion had [often dramatically] the healthiest societies in virtually every measure. Those measures were: homicides, teen abortions, teen pregnancies, sexually transmitted disease, infant mortality, life expectancy, suicide (ages 15-24) and scientific literacy (as acceptance of evolution). The abstract of that study reads as follows:

Large-scale surveys show dramatic declines in religiosity in favor of secularization in the developed democracies. Popular acceptance of evolutionary science correlates negatively with levels of religiosity, and the United States is the only prosperous nation where the majority absolutely believes in a creator and evolutionary science is unpopular. Abundant data is available on rates of societal dysfunction and health in the first world. Cross-national comparisons of highly differing rates of religiosity and societal conditions form a mass epidemiological experiment that can be used to test whether high rates of belief in and worship of a creator are necessary for high levels of social health. Data correlations show that in almost all regards the highly secular democracies consistently enjoy low rates of societal dysfunction, while pro-religious and antievolution America performs poorly.

Argument: Homosexuality is un-Christian (because we are in the predominantly Christian U.S..):

Let’s set aside that a sizable and growing number of self-professed Christians are accepting of gay rights. (If one argues that they know the correct and proper version of Christianity, they commit the No True Scotsman fallacy.)

It is important to understand that it is not the concern of the state that law align with religious edicts. The state must be neutral on religion and not advantage one faith over another nor advantage faith over non-faith. That’s (among other things) what the First Amendment is about.

Argument (usually unspoken): Homosexuality is gross!

I understand that your opposite-sex attraction might be perceived as good and positive and right and titillating and fulfilling and natural. For a heterosexual to contemplate a same-sex interaction will likely be cognitively at odds with those feelings. OK. So? Remember that our rights do not arise from others agreeing with us or understanding our behavior. Neither can we deny rights to others simply because we might disagree with them … at least not under our Constitution. Some people like anchovies on their pizza and some find anchovies gross. Because one might disagree and find it “gross” does not make one a victim.


With the public debate now centered on “gay marriage”, let’s look at two arguments with that particular focus.

Argument: Traditional marriage is…traditional

Slavery and denying the vote to women was traditional also. Certainly some traditions are good, but it doesn’t mean that they are invariably right and just.

Argument: “Marriage” is a religious institution.

It would be convenient if the etymology of the term “marriage” were clear. If the term could be traced back to specifically religious origins, this “civil union” vs “marriage” debate would be distant in our rear-view mirror. (Though it wouldn’t resolve the debate over state recognition of same-sex unions.) We might be well served by qualifying them as civilly identical “religious marriage” and “civil marriage”. In the end; religion doesn’t own the term. Moreover; “marriage” originally had more to do with transfer of property and transfer of dependence. The definition of marriage representing some loving, mutual union didn’t arise until the 14th century (though certainly not between equals back then).

Some supportive of gay right generally still suggest that “civil union” is a fair compromise. While it is true that, from a civil perspective, a “civil union” could encompass all the inheritance/health-care/tax/child care benefits and responsibilities, it misses an important point. “Separate But Equal” does not work for civil rights. Giving separate bathrooms and schools to African-Americans was still discrimination. Similarly giving “civil unions” to one class of citizen when the other enjoys “marriage” is discrimination. The important point here is that the term “marriage” is a valuable cultural currency. Given that we can’t trace the term “marriage” to specifically religious origins, we can’t deny that currency (along with its cultural value) to a class of people without it being unfair discrimination…at least not from the perspective of the state.


There seems to be a gathering avalanche of courts overturning state legislation against gay marriage. Recently, Utah’s anti-gay-marriage law was overturned by federal judge Richard Shelby. A concise analysis of that decision was made by Miles Kimball of the University of Michigan with:

‘Gay marriage is a matter of religious freedom for two reasons: First, a substantial component of the opposition to legalizing gay marriage is religious in origin. This is particularly true in Utah, where the Mormon Church has taken a lead role in opposing gay marriage. Leave aside religious objections to gay marriage and what remains would be unlikely to garner much respect. As Judge Shelby reminded us in his opinion, “the regulation of constitutionally protected decisions, such as … whom [a person] shall marry, must be predicated on legitimate state concerns other than disagreement with the choice the individual has made.” It is easy to come up with religious concerns about gay marriage; not so easy to come up with “legitimate state concerns.” ‘ [emphasis mine]


I have endeavored to lay out the beginnings of a case showing that it is unfair to discriminate against gays.  I have sought arguments that would keep that discrimination from rising [sinking?] to the definition of bigotry, but have come up woefully short. In my experience, the points above seem to pretty well cover the breadth of arguments by the anti-gay crowd. It would be a great misdeed to wield the term “bigot” if it were not justified…but at some point we have to recognize behavior and unfair discrimination for what it is. Once we dispose of the historical/traditional sensitivities of never-ever-ever-ever questioning religious doctrine, we bring a necessary clarity to the conversation.

As I said before; many rushing to defend Mr. Robertson did so claiming religious persecution. The thinking went that it is religious persecution to criticize Mr. Robertson for simply stating his religious beliefs. Again…let’s set aside that a good many religious adherents have been able to disregard the historical opposition on homosexuality espoused by the top selling holy books, but anti-gay thinking is, by nearly every metric, owned by religion.

So it raises the far thornier questions about religious liberty and religious persecution. Is bigotry not bigotry if offered for religious reasons? Are those espousing bigotry not bigots if they do so under the banner of faith? Is bigotry somehow diminished if the injustice stems from one being convinced they are living to the highest moral ideals? …or does it only make it that much more intractable and difficult to eradicate? We should consider Blaise Pascal’s musing that “Men never do evil so completely and cheerfully as when they do it from religious conviction.

Religious liberty affords every person the right to believe and think whatever they wish. Religious liberty does NOT afford protection from criticism or consequences if that thinking is bigoted. Religious liberty does not guarantee one’s beliefs be recognized in law in the absence of a “legitimate state concern”….and there seems to be no “legitimate state concern”.


About Mike Bruno

I live in Geneva, Illinois and enjoy discussing contentious topics (what's the point otherwise?). I am very involved in my community and historic preservation. I write here as a way to explore my own positions. I am a computer engineer that has been in the business since floppy disks had a capacity of 720 KILObytes...and were actually floppy. I am something of a science evangelist. If you like (or really dislike) what you read here, say so...and point your friends here. Thanks! The opinions expressed here are my own and do not necessarily reflect any persons or organizations with which I might be affiliated.
This entry was posted in bigotry, Biology, civil union, Debate, duck dynasty, ethics, evidence, evolution, gay marriage, gay rights, homosexuality, lgbt, morality, Politics, racism, Religion, religious liberty, science, xenophobia and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to Religious Liberty? Bigotry? Something Else?

  1. Pingback: Reviewing Pascal’s Wager | Mike Ponders

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